Forgotten why you walked into a room? Have you gone in search of your glasses which you then discover to your dismay were on your head the whole time! Can’t recall the name of someone you know well? It’s all perfectly natural – these are all very common events reported by women as they approach menopause, but don’t worry about it – brain fog is one of the most common symptoms of menopause and its usually completely reversible.
Perimenopause symptoms creep up on many of us. Most women believe that hot flushes are the first symptom most attributed to going through the menopause. However, one of scariest and less publicised symptoms can be increasing memory loss. If you feel like you are losing your memory at midlife it can be very frightening, especially if you think it’s a permanent situation. Many women secretly worry that these ‘senior moments’ are the beginning of dementia or early onset of Alzheimer’s, and starts to affect and reduce their confidence, filling them with fear.
According to Healthline, mild memory problems and a general fogginess are very common. They happen because your body is producing less oestrogen. Thankfully for most women, the effect is temporary and can be addressed through nutrition changes. There is a wealth of research, including our own, shows that women at mid-life have low levels of important nutrients, which leaves them struggling to function in what I call ‘economy mode’, making it very difficult for our brains to function normally
What is happening in the body?
At perimenopause, the ovaries become less effective at producing eggs and eventually no eggs will be produced. In response our bodies reduce the oestrogen production as the hormone is no longer needed for reproduction.
This lack of oestrogen causes women to experience symptoms associated with the transition to menopause.
For example, hot flushes and night sweats occur when fluctuating oestrogen levels send a false message to your brain that your body is overheating. Sleep disturbances occur because of reduced levels of oestrogen and progesterone. Ageing also contributes to sleeplessness. Night sweats can also make it hard to sleep. Mood changes and depression are common, as well. The hormone change can trigger some temporary memory issues as well.
What is causing the memory loss
It can be hard to measure mild memory loss because research is largely dependent on women’s perceptions that they are or have experienced memory loss due to going through menopause or for some other medical reason. Also, memory declines with age, so it can be hard to determine if it’s being caused by menopause.
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. The good news is that these studies also show that the memory recovers again after menopause.
Another four-year study found that women didn’t learn new things as well during perimenopause. After menopause, women returned to the learning levels they demonstrated before perimenopause.
And the reason? It’s unclear, but it’s thought most memory problems at this time of life are due to poor concentration, lack of motivation, tiredness, anxiety or stress, rather than loss of brain cells. Many surveys confirm that as we age many nutrients may be in short supply. Vitamin B deficiency, including B12 and Vitamin D can be associated with cognitive impairment as well as depression.
Vitamin E and other antioxidants may be important to help blood flow to the brain and central nervous system. One study showed for example that patients with early signs of dementia improved after being given high doses of Vitamin E.
As we grow older, our circulation slows down, thus less oxygen reaches our brain cells, so it’s no surprise we aren’t as sharp. Many of us don’t stretch our brains as much as we could. Like muscles, our brain needs to be used to function at optimum levels. The good news is forgetfulness doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of getting older. Following a nutrient-dense and phytoestrogen-rich diet, leading an active lifestyle and keeping your brain well exercised will help keep you sharp.
There is recent scientific evidence that soy isoflavones, whether in dietary or supplement form, can help with cognition and psychological symptoms around menopause. There is a high concentration of oestrogen receptors in the hippocampus - the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning - where these molecules might bind. For instance, an analysis of 10 randomised placebo-controlled clinical trials of isoflavone supplement use, covering over 1,000 women showed significant improvement in cognitive function and visual memory. It Is interesting that the impact was greatest among women under the age of 60 and, surprisingly perhaps, for shorter treatment duration. Maybe, the researchers said, there is an important 'window of opportunity' wherein supplementation and/or dietary changes should be started to gain maximum benefit for the brain and mind.
Don’t despair help is at hand
In addition to improving your diet and taking the right supplements, there are brain exercises that you can do to help with symptoms and which support keeping your memory sharp.
Many studies show that stimulation is the key to good memory and that people who take part in lots of different types of activity have better powers of recall. The more active your brain is, the better your memory is likely to be, and the more ways that you use your mind, the easier you will find it to remember things. It’s all to do with keeping your mind active active, rather than passive: whether you actively concentrate and focus on things or whether you just let them wash over you.
Try the following exercises to sharpen your mental faculties:
- Do a mental exercise every day – a crossword, Sudoko, word search or quiz. If you don’t know the answer, look it up, then try to remember it the next day.
- When doing your finances, ditch the calculator and use your brain instead.
- Take up new activities – gardening, knitting or anything active involving your hand-eye or foot-eye coordination.
- Make shopping lists, then memorise them before going to the shops.
- Engage in activities that stretch your brain, such as chess, bridge or anything that pushes you that little bit further.
A publication from Brazil this year reported that Yoga has been shown to reduce the rate at which the portion of the brain relating to memory ages. It also showed that women who practiced yoga regularly had increased levels of awareness, attention and what they called executive functions when compared to women of a similar age who didn’t practice yoga.
Be positive you can get better
Professor Jo Brewis, at the Open University joined the Six Week Natural Menopause Programme. She had a history of dementia in the family and when she started to struggle with her memory at work in her mid-forties she became extremely worried that her memory loss was t down to her family health history repeating itself and affecting her rather than it being related to being Peri-Menopausal.
Jo undertook the Six Week Natural Menopause programme and after completing it, was relieved that her memory restored and was sharp again, she continues her research with renewed vigour and has recently been promoted.
Click here to learn more about her story.
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