The Brain on Menopause

The Brain on MenopauseDo you feel like you’ve been forgetting more often or having trouble concentrating? A lot of women notice cognitive changes during menopause that leave them feeling “fuzzy,” a little (or a lot) less sharp than they used to be. For many women, these are troubling changes. They wonder—and worry about—where it will end.

It’s not entirely clear why these symptoms arise during menopause. Several studies have been done to test whether hormonal changes—especially estrogen loss—are behind the brain fog. In fact, part of the logic behind hormone replacement therapy was that it might help prevent such cognitive changes. But so far, results have varied widely. Some studies have concluded that estrogen replacement therapy improves memory and other aspects of cognition, but other studies of equal merit suggest it has no effect or even a negative effect on cognitive faculties. To date, no clear picture has emerged.

Enter hypothesis #2. Many scientists now believe that the mental fuzziness in menopause is less direct. It’s not that hormone levels affect cognitive faculties directly. Instead, they drive other symptoms of menopause, such as mood swings and poor sleep. These symptoms in turn impact memory and other cognitive functions. It makes sense: estrogen is known to affect brain chemicals essential for regulating both mood and sleep, and inconsistent moods and sleep are both associated with memory problems. This is good news: it means that when mood and sleep are back to normal, cognition will be, too.

But there is a caveat: As all people age, certain cognitive abilities gradually weaken. While we tend to get wiser, our brains also tend to slow. Our neurons don’t fire quite as quickly as they once did. This slowing is miniscule—just a few milliseconds, maybe—but it can make a big difference to memory, thinking, and focus. And menopause has an interesting relation to this normal age-related cognitive decline. Before menopause, men decline at a faster rate than women. But during menopause, women catch up. Postmenopausal women show an average rate of decline that matches that of men. So while the cognitive changes a woman senses during menopause may be just a part of normal aging, they may feel accelerated.

Of course, every individual will have a different experience. Science results deal in averages, not individuals—and as such their results may not apply to you. And the role of hormones like estrogen in the brain is very complicated, and sometimes contradictory. For instance, estrogen affects both serotonin and beta-endorphin levels … one of which should improve mood and the other which should worsen mood.

The upshot is that it's normal to feel like your brain isn't at its best during menopause, and the most extreme moments of brain fog are probably temporary. Scientists aren't exactly sure what's going on—frankly, the menopausal brain is quite understudied given that half of the population is likely to experience it—but that doesn't mean you can't do anything about it. Whether your brain changes result from menopause or if they're part of normal aging, there are several ways to improve brain performance, including doing BrainHQ brain training exercises regularly. Getting the right kinds of exercise, eating brain-healthy foods, actively socializing, and learning new tasks are also important for overall brain health.