The difficulties that many women describe as memory problems when menopause approaches are real, according to a study by researchers from the University of Rochester and the University of Illinois. Generally, anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of women during this stage of life report forgetfulness and other difficulties that they view as related to poor memory.
The findings, published in the journal Menopause, won't come as a surprise to many women in their late 40s and 50s, but the new work validates their experiences and provides clues to what is happening in the brain.
The women in the study, aged between 40 and 60, underwent a number of cognitive tests that looked at several skills, including their abilities to learn and retain new information, to mentally manipulate new information, and to sustain their attention over time.
Rochester's Miriam Weber said the women who had memory complaints were much more likely to do poorly in tests designed to measure what is called "working memory" - the ability to take in new information and manipulate it in their heads. Such tasks in real life might include calculating the amount of a tip after a restaurant meal, adding up a series of numbers in one's head, or adjusting one's itinerary on the fly after an unexpected flight change.
The researchers also found that the women's reports of memory difficulties were associated with a lessened ability to keep and focus attention on a challenging task. That might include doing the taxes, maintaining sharp attention on the road during a long drive, completing a difficult report at work despite boredom, or getting through a particularly challenging book.
Weber notes that such cognitive processes aren't what typically come to mind when people think of "memory." Oftentimes, people consider memory to be the ability to tuck away a piece of information, such as a grocery item you need to remember to buy, and to retrieve it later. The team found little evidence that women have problems with this ability.
For women who feel they are having memory problems, Weber has some advice. "When someone gives you a new piece of information, it might be helpful to repeat it out loud, or for you to say it back to the person to confirm it - it will help you hold onto that information longer," Weber said. "Make sure you have established that memory solidly in the brain. You need to do a little more work to make sure the information gets into your brain permanently. It may help to realize that you shouldn't expect to be able to remember everything after hearing it just once."
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Source: University of Rochester Medical Center