Memory issues are a normal occurrence during perimenopause, the transitional time before menopause. If you’re in perimenopause, you may be worried about lapses in your memory. But mild memory problems and a general fogginess are very common. They happen because your body is making less estrogen. And for many women, the effect is temporary.
Let’s break down what’s going on.
Estrogen and perimenopause
As you age, your ovaries stop working as well as they once did. Over time, they produce fewer eggs and eventually stop entirely. Your body responds by reducing the amount of estrogen it produces because the hormone is no longer needed for reproduction.
This process doesn’t happen immediately. During perimenopause, your estrogen levels go up and down a lot. This is when many women experience symptoms associated with the transition to menopause.
For example, hot flashes and night sweats occur when fluctuating estrogen levels send a false message to your brain that your body is overheating. Sleep disturbances occur because of reduced levels of estrogen and progesterone. Aging also contributes to sleeplessness. Night sweats can also make it hard to sleep. Mood changes and depression are common, as well. A history of depression earlier in life increases the chances of depression during the years after your periods stop.
And, apparently, the hormone change can trigger some temporary memory issues as well.
What the research says about estrogen and memory
It can be hard to measure mild memory loss because research is largely dependent on women’s perceptions that they’ve experienced memory loss. Also, memory declines with age, so it can be hard to determine if it’s caused by menopause.
Still, studies on the effect of estrogen on memory support the idea that estrogen depletion during perimenopause causes memory loss, and that memory improves after menopause.
For example, a large 2004 study called The Penn Ovarian Aging Study supports the finding that hormone changes during perimenopause often cause a decline in verbal memory. It found these effects are separate from the natural effects of aging. This study provides the basis for many current studies.
Another four-year study found that women couldn’t learn as well during perimenopause. After menopause, women returned to the learning levels they demonstrated before perimenopause.
A review published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology also identified reduced memory and thinking skills in women during perimenopause and menopause. The women in the study reported problems especially with forgetfulness and concentration.
Isn’t estrogen a sex hormone?
Estrogen is an important sex hormone. Only in recent years have researchers begun to recognize the major role estrogen has throughout the rest of your body. Changes in your estrogen levels also affect your:
- blood vessels
- breast tissue
Estrogen and another hormone, progesterone, are largely responsible for triggering development of your reproductive organs and female characteristics. They play an important role in the functioning of your reproductive system, including menstruation and pregnancy.
Why does memory decline?
The exact effect of estrogen and progesterone loss on the brain is not well understood. It’s believed that estrogen may help the neurotransmitter systems that send signals in brain areas involved in memory and information processing. Many researchers also think that estrogen promotes the growth and survival of neurons, the cells that send electrical impulses. These impulses serve as messages that are crucial for making your brain and nervous system work properly.
What you can do
There are a few things you can do to help keep your memory functioning at its best through this time.
Get good rest
Sleep loss contributes to mood disturbances and depression. Try these tips to maintain a healthy sleep cycle:
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule, including on the weekends.
- Reduce your caffeine intake.
- Keep your bedroom cool, and consider placing a fan nearby.
- Purchase a cooling pad or pillows with cooling elements.
- Make sure your room is as dark as possible.
- Learn relaxation techniques, such as mindful meditation or yoga.
- Exercise, but not right before bedtime.
- Wear bedclothes made of natural fibers, such as cotton, hemp, linen, or silk.
- Avoid alcohol, smoking, and spicy foods.
- Consider asking your doctor to arrange a sleep assessment.
Food that’s bad for your heart may also be bad for your brain. This means that you should limit saturated fats and trans fats found in foods such as fried foods, battered foods, and baked goods.
Try these other tips for eating a healthful diet, as well:
- Eat a diet that’s rich in fruit and vegetables, particularly leafy green vegetables.
- Look for whole-grain products in breads and side dishes.
- Choose low-fat dairy options.
- Eat eggs to get the protein and vitamin D you need for bone health.
- Use unhydrogenated oils, such as olive oil, safflower oil, or canola oil.
- Choose products made with unhydrogenated oil if you’re purchasing processed food.
- Limit sweets, especially baked goods and carbonated beverages.
- Limit red meat.
Exercise your body
Exercise stimulates your brain in areas that are critical to memory and information processing. It also improves the functioning of the hippocampus, a part of your brain responsible for different types of memory.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that premenopausal and postmenopausal women get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, five days per week. A combination of aerobic and resistance exercise has the greatest impact.
Aerobic exercise can include:
- riding your bike
- aerobics classes
- the stair machine
Resistance exercises include:
- lifting weights
- exercising with a resistance band
- exercises that use your body for resistance, such situps, pushups, and squats
Exercise your brain
Keeping your brain active helps stave off the effects of aging. Try these tips to give your brain a workout.
- Do crossword puzzles and Sudoku.
- Play word games.
- Play online brain games and quizzes.
- Read books, newspapers, and magazines.
- Learn something new, like a musical instrument or a new language.
- Spend time talking and socializing with family or friends.
When to seek help
It’s normal to be forgetful as you age and go through menopause. Normal occurrences may include losing your keys, forgetting why you entered a room, or having a name slip your mind.
If your menopause symptoms are severe, though, you may want to talk to your doctor about low-dose menopausal hormone therapy (MHT). MHT increases your risk of breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and gallbladder disease. If you have a history of any of those diseases, you are not a good candidate for MHT. But your doctor may recommend limited use to help control your symptoms.
More serious cases
Be aware of symptoms that may be signs of more serious memory problems, such as:
- repeating questions or comments
- neglecting hygiene
- forgetting how to use common objects
- being unable to understand or follow directions
- forgetting common words
- getting lost in places you know well
- having trouble carrying out basic daily activities
Symptoms such as these warrant a visit to the doctor. The doctor may check for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. There are many other reasons for memory loss, as well, including:
- head injury
- overactive thyroid
Your doctor can help you figure out the cause of your memory loss and the best treatment.
Researchers agree that memory loss is common in perimenopause, and that it often improves after menopause. Talk to your doctor to create a plan to get you through perimenopause. Keep track of your symptoms and discuss them with your doctor as you progress through perimenopause. As you near menopause, you will hopefully begin to feel better, and your memory will begin functioning more fully.