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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Perimenopausal memory loss? Not so much

I’m sure you’re aware that menopause is the cessation of ovulation that occurs when a woman reaches a certain age, usually her late forties or early fifties.  What you may not know is that a woman can experience a number of unpleasant symptoms, including hot flashes and insomnia, for up to ten years prior to her last period.  This stage is known as ‘perimenopause’ or ‘menopause transition’.

One of the commonly reported symptoms of perimenopause is memory loss.  But is this a real effect or just anecdotal?  To find out, Miriam Weber, Mark Mapstone and Jennifer Staskiewicz from the University of Rochester and Pauline Maki from the University of Illinois at Chicago put 75 perimenopausal women through their mental paces.

The women, none of whom had any history of neurological disease, were given a series of memory challenges.  Some examples include being asked to repeat back increasingly long strings of numbers both forwards and backwards, to name as many items in a category as possible (animals that begin with the letter F) and to identify objects that had been cut into pieces.

Prior to taking these tests, the woman were asked to assess how forgetful they were, how well they thought their memories worked, and whether they suffered from anxiety or depression. Hormone panels were taken on test days, which were scheduled to fall between day four and seven of each woman’s menstrual cycle.

While 67% of the women claimed to have suffered from some degree of memory loss, most of them did not in fact have any memory deficits. That is, they performed as expected on almost all the tests. Although the women did a bit worse than expected on a few of the challenges, because they had not been tested before they became perimenopausal, it’s difficult to know whether this indicates any real decline. There were no correlations between hormone levels and cognitive function either.

So it doesn’t look like transitioning into menopause is sufficient to wreak havoc with women’s memories, despite perceptions. You can decide for yourself whether to celebrate that news or mourn the loss of a darned good excuse.