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Menopause and Memory: Search for Links

Near Menopause, Women's Memory May Seem Worse Than It Really Is
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 3, 2006 -- As menopause nears, some women blame their shifting hormones for memory problems. But it's not quite that simple, a new study shows.

The study included 24 women aged 40-60 who were approaching menopause. They took tests of memory, mood, mental skills, and estrogen blood levels.

The women's memories were largely fine, regardless of estrogen level or the women's sense that their memory used to be sharper. However, women showing signs of depression or anxiety scored lower on tests of mental skills, and blood tests showed lower estrogen levels in anxious women.

Miriam Webster, PhD, and Mark Mapstone, PhD, from the University of Rochester's Memory Disorders Clinic conducted the study. Their findings were presented in Boston at the International Neuropsychological Society's annual meeting.

About Menopause

Menopause is a natural process in which women's sex hormones diminish, signaling the end of women's childbearing years.

Menopause is not a disease. However, many women report physical, emotional, and memory-related symptoms related to menopause.

The women studied by Weber and Mapstone were from Rochester, N.Y. They hadn't finished menopause, but they reported at least one change in their menstrual cycle in the past year. Based on those changes and the women's age, participants were "perimenopausal," or approaching menopause, the researchers note.

None of the women was taking hormone replacement therapy or had major neurological or psychological problems.

No Memory Problems

Most women in the study stated that their memories had declined. But in a memory test, only one woman showed memory impairment. In short, most women gave their memories too little credit.

Fifteen of the women had symptoms of mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression, though none was found to have a mood disorder.

"While most women reported memory loss and mood disruption, there was little evidence of memory impairment or formal mood disorder on objective testing," the researchers write.

"Overall, the group did not score in the impaired range on any cognitive test," they note. "However, several women performed lower than expected on cognitive measures." Those cognitive tests included attention, organization, and visual skills.

Mood Link

Women with signs of anxiety or depression tended to score worse on tests of mental skills. Anxious women also had less estrogen in their blood, the study shows.

It's hard to unravel those patterns. It's not clear which came first -- anxiety or lower estrogen levels.

What about the women's claims of memory trouble? Anxiety and depression may make it harder to absorb new information, the researchers note. Intake of information -- not recall -- might be the issue, with mood and hormones playing roles in that process.

"A thorough investigation of mood state may be a first-line approach to complaints of memory loss in these women," Mapstone writes in a summary of the study.

Since their study was small, the researchers aren't jumping to any conclusions. They call for much bigger studies on the topic. If confirmed in larger studies, the findings could ease women's fears about memory loss as menopause approaches, Mapstone notes.

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