Menopause and Brain Fitness – Crisis or Just Change?

The Houston Chronicle ran an interesting story the other day that adresses a number of common perceptions about menopause. The one that caught our attention is:

The hormonal changes of menopause turn your brain to mush.
Unproven. There is some evidence that women with low estrogen levels experience faster cognitive decline, and women who take estrogen supplements sometimes do better on certain memory tests. But the evidence is inconsistent. According to the Women’s Health Initiative, women older than 65 who took Prempro had a higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia than women taking dummy pills. Other studies, however, have suggested that estrogen use protects against Alzheimer’s if it’s started near the onset of menopause. Some experts now believe estrogen can protect both the brain and the heart if it’s started early, before age-related deterioration sets in, but not after that window of opportunity closes.


A longitudinal study published in 2003 also concluded menopause does not cause cognitive decline. Science Blog quotes:

“The study is important because it shows that there is little or no risk for immediate memory loss during perimenopause,” said Sam Gandy, M.D., Ph.D., vice chair of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Council, and director, Farber Institute for the Neurosciences of Thomas Jefferson University.

On the other hand, an October 2006 publication, found that longer treatment with estrogen hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in postmenopausal women protected neurons in the hippocampus against age-related cognitive decline. Another recent publication in Menopause concludes that timing is everything.

Professor Alastair MacLennan said, “This study has shown us that using HRT early in menopause, or even just before the final menstrual period, resulted in better cognitive performance later in life than in women of similar age and background who had never used HRT.

”However, starting HRT many years after menopause was not associated with any cognitive benefit.“

A great post by iqte.st based on an article from the APA points out:

While nobody thinks women should take hormones to improve their brain health, doctors say women who choose hormones to relieve hot flashes should be reassured by recent news that hormones may help boost thinking skills. And Dr. Joffe notes that everyone, whether it’s a woman during menopause or a man juggling multiple responsibilities, can take active steps to improve their daily cognitive function. The main reason people feel like their memory or thinking skills are slipping is usually due to lack of attention, she says. If something is important, take the time to repeat it, write it down and make sure the information is registering in your brain.

What can you do to stay mentally sharp?
The good news is whether or not you and your doctor decide to go with hormone replacement therapy, lifestyle choices like exercise, nutritional management, and brain exercise can help alleviate the symptoms of menopause and aging. If you feel mentally fuzzy, try various strategies for dealing with weak attention or try some of the software programs out there that specifically work on increasing attention and working memory.

Related Links
50 Ways to Cope With Menopause by Dr. Linda Hughey Holt and Ada P. Kahn
North American Menopause Society
Interview with Dr. Torkel Klingberg, researcher in working memory
Interview with Professor David Rabiner, advocate for people with ADD/ADHD
RoboMemo remobilizes working memory

-Caroline

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