Ingrid Berman once said, "Happiness is good health and a bad memory," which sort of suggests that a healthy woman going through menopause (a time when memory seems muddiest) should be elated. And wouldn't it be wonderful if that were true--if hot flashes, sleep disturbances and sexual dysfunction could, in fact, brighten your day?
Unfortunately, the opposite is true. We know this because years of research have shown that menopause-related memory loss is often associated with depressed mood. It makes sense: forgetfulness is frustrating, especially when it seems to come on relatively sudden.
What researchers have recently figured out though, is that memory loss from menopause is a lot more than just foggy thinking and verbal slips. Menopause may, in fact, bring on temporary learning problems, where a woman going through this transition finds herself unable to learn new things like she used to.
The reason behind all of this is, like almost everything else in menopause, related to a drop in estrogen. Normally, estrogen in the brain helps mediate the function of neurotransmitter chemicals that are involved in memory and learning. Around menopause, when a woman's ovaries stop producing normal amounts of estrogen, the brain is also deprived and that can lead to trouble recalling memories or making new ones.
The natural solution to this dilemma might seem to be replenishing the estrogen through hormone replacement therapy (HRT), or estrogen pills. When used for short periods of time, estrogen therapy during the menopause transition has been shown to help relieve symptoms like hot flashes that can be incredibly cumbersome.
The same is not true for mending memory issues however. Part of the Women's Health Initiative--a large and famous trial that looked at hormone therapy effects on postmenopausal women--showed there is no significant proof that estrogen will thwart off memory loss or prevent dementia. In older postmenopausal women, hormone therapy may even do the opposite and increase the risk of dementia.
With tons of reports contradicting each other on this topic--some saying estrogen helps with memory, some saying it doesn't--the Women's Health Initiative seems to be the strongest piece of evidence to date.
What to do then if you're still transitioning and tired of forgetting names or dates?
The North American Menopause Society recommends staying active physically, socially and mentally throughout the menopause transition, which usually lasts a few years. If there is concern for more serious cognitive decline, they recommend talking with your primary health care provider.
Rapp, SR, et al. Effect of estrogen plus progestin on global cognitive function in postmenopausal women: the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2003; 289:2663.
Espeland, MA, et al. Conjugated equine estrogens and global cognitive function in postmenopausal women: Women's Health Initiative Memory Study. JAMA 2004; 291:2959.