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Memory Changes: Is it Menopause or Alzheimer’s?

Time to update my profile picture Today, even the slightest changes in our memory can spark fears of Alzheimer’s, especially for those who have lost a loved one to this devastating disease.   Some comforting news for women: It’s not at all uncommon to have memory issues as you age or for memory problems to become more noticeable as menopause approaches. Patients often come to me around the age of 40 with concerns about changes in their memory. Typically, these are women who have always had exceptional memory, able to remember long lists or multitask with ease. Sometimes the first thing they struggle with is remembering names. Or they’ll walk into a room and forget what they went in for. My personal favorite is when I sit down at the computer to Google something and forget what I was going to look up. Rest assured, this type of memory loss – whether it’s difficulty retrieving minor information or searching for your glasses when they’re on top of your head – is a normal part of aging. Some other typical “age-related behaviors” according to the Alzheimer’s Association include:
  • Making occasional mistakes when balancing your checkbook
  • Occasionally needing help remembering how to do things like record a TV show
  • Having trouble sometimes finding the right word
  • Misplacing things but being able to retrace your steps to find them
  • Making a poor decision on occasion
  • Sometimes feeling tired of work, family and social obligations
  • Having specific ways of doing things and getting irritated when your routine is disrupted
It should also comfort women to know that scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago have confirmed the “brain fog” that often seems to roll in with menopause. Estrogen is extremely protective of brain function. In perimenopause, as estrogen levels begin to decline, many women find themselves becoming increasingly forgetful or feeling “foggy.” The 2013 study, published in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society, validated these experiences, confirming that cognitive changes occur during this phase in a woman’s life. So, how do you know when your memory changes are not part of the normal aging experience? The Alzheimer’s Association advises visiting your doctor if you experience any of these 10 warning signs:
  • Memory loss that disrupts your daily life
  • Challenges in your ability to plan or solve problems, like following a recipe or paying bills
  • Difficulties completing familiar tasks like driving to a familiar location
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • New problems with words when speaking or writing, like calling things by the wrong name
  • Misplacing things and finding them in unusual places
  • Decreased or poor judgment, for example when dealing with money or personal hygiene
  • Withdrawal from work and social activities
  • Changes in mood and personality, and becoming easily upset when out of your comfort zone
Scientists continue to research promising new treatments for Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. In the meantime, the Alzheimer’s Association recently unveiled “10 Ways to Love Your Brain” and reduce the risk of cognitive decline, and possibly dementia, as we age. The key is to combine the basics of healthy living – like adequate exercise and sleep, good heart health, a nutritious diet and avoiding smoking – with additional habits that include staying socially engaged, taking educational classes, challenging your mind through puzzles and games, protecting yourself from head injuries, reducing stress and seeking help for depression.
Sources: Weber MT, Rubin LH, Maki PM. Cognition in perimenopause: the effect of transition stage. Menopause. 2013 May;20(5):511-7. PubMed PMID:23615642. University of Rochester Medical Center. (2012). “‘Brain Fog’ of Menopause Confirmed.” Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/3436/brain-fog-of-menopause-c… Alzheimer’s Association. (2015). “New Research Summary: Lifestyle Changes Help Reduce Risk Of Cognitive Decline” [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://www.alz.org/documents_custom/national_abam_press_release.pdf
Author
Dr. Lucy Puryear, Medical Director - The Women's Place: Center for Reproductive Psychiatry