WOMEN'S HEALTH
June 24, 2009

Memory and Menopause

Women in menopause often report "senior moments," and a new study supports that these memory deficits are real. The good news is...
Roughly two thirds of women report that they have memory problems during menopause, and now a study published in the May 26 issue of the journal Neurology supports that claim. Researchers at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine have found that certain cognitive functions do indeed seem to suffer slightly in early menopause. But there's good news, too: these functions also rebound when menopause is fully underway.

"The good news is that when women are finished with the menopause transition and in steady postmenopause, cognitive performance, memory, learning, all that comes back to premenopause levels," says lead author Arun S. Karlamangla.

The team looked at over 2,300 women, following them for about four years -- from pre-menopause through post-menopause. They tested the women on certain cognitive tasks, which involved verbal memory, working (or short-term) memory, and processing speed, over the four phases of menopause: premenopause, early perimenopuase, late perimenopause, and postmenopause. (Premenopause is characterized by regular periods; early perimenopause is when periods are slightly irregular, but not missed; late perimenopause is characterized by missed periods for three to 11 months; and in postmenopause periods have stopped completely for at least a year.)

Happily, women in postmenopause performed just like premenopausal women on the tasks at hand, suggesting that there is recovery of cognitive function after menopause is fully underway.

Karlamangla says that "Much to our surprise, cognitive functioning did not actually decline in any group." With repeated exposure to certain kinds of cognitive tests, most people naturally improve over time -- in late perimenopausal women, however, their processing speed did not increase as notably as in pre- and postmenopausal women. Therefore, the only real difference in the perimenopausal group was that they improved less over time than the other groups.

Happily, women in postmenopause performed just like premenopausal women on the tasks at hand, suggesting that there is recovery of cognitive function after menopause is fully underway.

The researchers suggest that fluctuating levels of estrogen may be behind these changes in cognitive function. They found that when women began hormone therapy before their last period, fewer changes in cognition were seen (but beginning hormone therapy after the last period was associated with less cognitive improvement than women who did not take hormone supplements at all).

The team is currently addressing the possibility that physical symptoms such as hot flashes may have some effect on the changes in cognitive function during menopause.
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