Reporting their findings in the journal Menopause, neurologists say the memory problems that many women experience as they approach and go through menopause are real and appear to be most acute during the early period of post menopause.
"Women going through menopausal transition have long complained of cognitive difficulties such as keeping track of information and struggling with mental tasks that would have otherwise been routine," said Miriam Weber, at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study. "This study suggests that these problems not only exist but become most evident in women in the first year following their final menstrual period."
For the study, participants were divided into four groups: late reproductive, early and late menopausal transition, and early post menopause (defined as the first year after which a woman experienced her last menstrual period).
The subjects then took a variety of tests assessing their cognitive skills, including attention, verbal learning and memory, fine motor skills and dexterity, and working memory. The particpants also reported on menopause-related symptoms such as hot-flashes, sleep disturbance, depression and anxiety, and gave a sample of blood to determine current levels of estrogen and follicle stimulating hormone. The results were analyzed to determine if there were group differences in cognitive performance, and if these differences were due to menopausal symptoms.
The researchers found that women in the early stage of post menopause performed worse on measures of verbal learning, verbal memory and fine motor skill than women in the late reproductive and late transition stages.
The researchers also found that self-reported symptoms such as sleep difficulties, depression, and anxiety did not predict memory problems. Nor could these problems be associated with specific changes in hormone levels found in the blood.
"These findings suggest that cognitive declines through the transition period are independent processes rather than a consequence of sleep disruption or depression," said Weber. "While absolute hormone levels could not be linked with cognitive function, it is possible that the fluctuations that occur during this time could play a role in the memory problems that many women experience."
Weber explained that the process of learning new information, holding on to it, and employing it are functions associated with regions of the brain known as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. These parts of the brain are rich with estrogen receptors.
"By identifying how these memory problems progress and when women are most vulnerable, we now understand the window of opportunity during which interventions - be those therapeutic or lifestyle changes - may be beneficial," said Weber. "But the most important thing that women need to be reassured of is that these problems, while frustrating, are normal and, in all likelihood, temporary."
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Source: University of Rochester Medical Center