Study: Fuzzy Thinking May Be Part of Menopausal Transition

Patient Expert

Feeling a little fuzzy in your thinking as you go through menopause? Researchers believe there is a reason for that

A new small study out of the University of Rochester in New York tried to determine whether women experience difference sin cognitive function throughout the different stages of their lifetime reproductive cycle. In addition, the researchers wanted to evaluate whether a woman's menopausal symptoms or their hormones could provide insight into their thinking ability during the initial stages of menopause called perimenopause.

This particular study assessed 117 middle-age women who were part of the Rochester Investigation of Cognition Across Menopause. The researchers grouped the women into four groups - late reproductive stage, early menopausal transition stage, late menopausal transition stage, or early postmenopause stage - based on the criteria from the Stages of Reproductive Aging Workshop +10. The study did not include women who were well into menopause, having gone through one year without their period. Furthermore, this study primarily involved white women and most had some level of higher education.

All of the participants underwent a neuropsychological battery that assessed six domains of cognition. Their menopausal symptoms (such as hot flashes, sleep issues, depression and anxiety) were also evaluated as was their serum levels of estradiol and follicle-stimulating hormone.

The researchers' analysis found that women who were in the first year of postmenopause actually performed significantly worse on measures of verbal learning, verbal memory and motor function than women who were in their late reproductive phase or the late menopausal transition stage. Furthermore, these women also performed significantly worse on tasks related to attention and working memory than women who were in the late menopausal transition stage.

The researchers concluded that women do not experience a linear change in cognitive function as they go through perimenopause. In addition, women who are within the first year of their last period may experience lower attention/working memory, verbal learning, verbal memory and fine motor speed.

The reason behind these changes?   The regions of the brain that are responsible for these functions are especially rich in estrogen receptors. Therefore, the fluctuation of estrogen that happens during menopause appears to be linked to these cognitive challenges. And difficulty sleeping, depression and anxiety were not found to be associated with these memory issues or with changes in blood hormone levels.

The good news is that researchers believe that these mental challenges diminish once a woman's body readjusts to the changed hormonal levels.
So what can you do to keep your cognitive function intact as you age?   Here are some suggestions:

  • Get plenty of exercise. Increasingly there's research indicating that getting enough physical activity can help your brain function better. Be sure to aim to get aerobic exercise as well as strength exercise regularly.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Eating a diet consisting of produce, fruits, whole grains, nuts, lean meats and seafood can help your brain perform optimally.
  • Limit stress. The more stress you have, the more scrambled your thoughts are probably going to be. Therefore, find time to relax on a regular basis.   That could mean a daily meditation practice, a relaxing bath, or a regular massage.
  • Quit multi-tasking. Today's world seems to require that we juggle multiple duties. Many middle-age women take on lots of responsibilities in their professional and person lives. The best way to manage these during the thought-scrambling time during menopause is to slow down and concentrate on one task at a time. Don't email while having a conversation on the phone. Concentrate on putting together that report behind closed doors so you can avoid constant interruptions by coworkers.
  • Figure out when the optimal time of the day is for you mentally and plan your hardest mental tasks then. For me, that's the morning. By the afternoon, I find that my concentration tends to fray. However, others aren't morning people and begin to get into the zone after lunch. Find your time and stick with it!

So yes, research increasingly is suggesting that going through the menopause transition can scramble your thoughts. However, taking appropriate steps can help keep you mentally in the game. And once your body gets accustomed to the changes, your brain function should return to normal.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

MedlinePlus. (2013). Menopause can bring lapses in memory, thinking, study finds.

Weber, M. T., et al. (2013). Cognition in perimenopause: The effect of transition stage. Menopause.