You have this incredible friend called Sarah, who you’ve been through just about everything with. You first met in school where you introduced her to your boyfriend’s best mates. You were bridesmaids at each other’s wedding, you fell pregnant around the same time and you’ve supported each other through relationship troubles, job loss, troublesome kids and more.
One day, you’re running into your local cafe and you spot Sarah at a table in the corner. You want to call out to get her attention but you can’t – you’ve forgotten her name. How is this possible? How can you forget the name of someone you hold so dear, someone you consider to be a sister? Well, it could be the cause of menopause, a blip in time known as a “brain freeze”.
Menopause is one of the most significant biological and health-related changes women will face. Some make the transition into menopause seem easy, but for others, menopause can wreak all kinds of havoc. In terms of memory loss, “brain fog”, or “brain freezes”, it’s one of the most commonly experienced symptoms.
What is brain fog?
Brain fog is a term generally used to describe slow or hazy thinking, difficulty focusing, confusion, lack of concentration, and forgetfulness. It’s similar to mild cognitive impairment (brought o n by ageing) in that it can cause considerable angst, but it’s not a sign of permanent degeneration.
Most women who experience menopause-induced memory loss report that their memory returned after menopause.
Many women describe brain fog during menopause as a “fuzzy” feeling. They feel less sharp than they used to and find they have to work harder to find answers they already know, a scary concept for many women embarking on menopause.
Two types of memory are affected during menopause: short term memory and recent memory. Recollections of names, dates and addresses can evade a woman experiencing memory lapses, especially if she’s just received the information.
Why these symptoms arise is not entirely clear, but some tests have suggested it may be the result of hormonal changes. In fact, part of the logic behind hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is the prevention of brain fog.
In short, the key thing to remember is that brain fog is very much real and that you’re not going mad, nor will it be permanent.
Brain fog and hormones
Ovarian hormones have a direct impact on brain function, with the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (responsible for learning, memory and other high order tasks) rich with oestrogen receptors. Oestrogen promotes neuron growth and survival and influences the formation and function of synapses. Testosterone too has widespread effects in women, including significant favourable effects on verbal learning and memory. In fact, it’s lack of testosterone that gets the majority share of the blame.
Brain fog and disrupted sleep
Some research has attributed memory lapses and an inability to concentrate to the poor quality sleep many women experience during menopause. Night sweats and hot flushes disturb regular sleep patterns and as a result, women wake feeling tired. As you well know, sleep is hugely important for the consolidation of memory and tiredness can greatly affect the way you think.
Brain fog and risk factors
Although decreases in hormones and lack of sleep are likely the most common causes of memory loss in menopause, there are other risk factors that can worsen the effect. Risk factors include:
- Excessive alcohol
- Some medications (sleeping pills, antidepressants, pain killers, blood pressure and heart medications)
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Poor diet
- Excessive workload
Whatever the reason may be, you can do things to try and keep your brain healthy and active during menopause.
Keeping brain fog at bay
Keeping your brain healthy and thinking clearly requires attention to good sleep, good nutrition, mental stimulation, physical exercise and stress reduction.
1. Keep cool
A 2008 study suggested that women who suffer severe hot flushes are more likely to experience a loss of verbal memory. Keep your hot flushes in check and you could improve your memory.
2. Stay fit
By giving your body a workout with exercise, you give your brain a workout too, according to researchers at the University of Illinois. Exercise triggers the growth of new nerve cells and blood vessels in the brain and increases the production of chemicals that promote the repair of existing brain cells.
3. Promote better sleep
Set up a nightly ritual that you follow every day of the week to encourage deeper, more restful sleep. Keep your bedtime and waketime as consistent as possible and make sure your bedroom is a distraction-free zone that’s dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
4. Eat fish
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold water fish like salmon and mackerel can offer benefits to menopause. A UCLA study showed that omega-3 fatty acids, which can also be found in walnuts, spinach and kiwifruit, enhance learning and memory.
5. Drink red wine
Moderate amounts of red wine a week can help keep memory loss at may due to resveratrol which protects brain cells from free radicals. Just be careful not to overindulge or you could see reverse effects as well as increase your risk of cancer and other diseases.
6. Be creative
If brain fog makes it difficult for you to remember phone numbers or passwords, break them down into segments. Focus on remembering one segment at a time to make recall easier. A clever way to remember new names is to associate the name with an image. If you meet someone called Mary, for example, picture Princess Mary. If you meet someone called Steve, picture Steve Irwin.
7. Play mind games
Mind games such as crosswords, puzzles and sudokus are an excellent way to strengthen the muscles in your brain. Studies show that as little as one hour a week of ‘brain training’ can decrease your risk of cognitive decline.
Keep memory loss at bay
Menopause is a really important time for you to stop and think about your health and to make taking care of yourself one of your top priorities. Your general lifestyle can have enormous effects on menopause symptoms and the more you do to manage your own health, the more you can keep symptoms like memory loss at bay.