Cognitive decline is a normal part of getting older. But memory loss isn’t just a thing that happens to us in our 70s and 80s. Women going through perimenopause frequently complain of memory lapses.
The hormonal shifts happening during the build-up to menopause can cause a variety of psychological symptoms, including memory loss. But unlike cognitive decline in later life, this unwanted side effect is usually temporary.
But why does memory loss happen in the first place? And is there anything we can do to boost our brain power during perimenopause?
In this post, we’ll uncover the truth about menopause-related memory loss and separate the fact from the fiction. Plus, we’ll also explore the best ways to keep your mind sharp during this transitional time.
How Does Menopause Affect Memory?
During perimenopause, your reproductive system begins to slow down, and your body produces lower levels of estrogen than it did before. This process, known as perimenopause, usually takes several years to complete.
As estrogen decreases, symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats kick in. But declining estrogen also has a direct impact on your brain, and memory issues are commonplace.
So, if you’re forgetting where you put your keys or what you did last weekend, don’t panic. It might not be early-onset Alzheimer’s. It could be a sign of perimenopause.
Studies show that declining estrogen impacts a variety of cognitive functions, including verbal memory, concentration skills, and the ability to learn and retain information.
But there’s good news. Once the menopausal transition is complete, cognitive function improves again, and your memory will most likely return to its former state.
How Does Estrogen Loss Cause Memory Loss?
Most people only think of estrogen as a sex hormone. After all, it triggers the development of female characteristics and reproductive organs and powers our monthly cycle. But estrogen also has a major impact on other processes in the body. This includes inflammation reduction, cholesterol control, as well as bladder, heart, bone, and brain health.
Estrogen supports neuron growth in the brain and protects neurotransmitter systems that regulate comprehension and memory. But when estrogen declines, so do these protective and regenerative processes. As a result, memory and other cognitive functions suffer.
During menopause, glucose, the brain’s main source of fuel, is also in short supply. Without glucose, the brain is forced to find its fuel elsewhere, and many of its processes slow down.
But recent research from the Women’s Brain Initiative at Weill Cornell Medicine suggests that changes to the brain’s structure, connectivity, and energy consumption are reversed in post-menopause.
The study compared detailed MRI and PET scans of 161 women’s brains at different stages on their menopausal journey; pre-menopause, perimenopause, and post-menopause.
The data revealed a wide variety of profound brain changes, including loss of gray and white matter.
But interestingly, the results also showed that the brain compensates for some of these changes. For example, by increasing blood flow and the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a compound used to keep all living cells alive.
But that’s not all. Many changes, including loss of gray and white matter, had reversed themselves by the time the participants had reached menopause or postmenopause.
So, the science is in. Yes, menopause can negatively impact our brains and lead to memory loss. But thankfully, the effects appear to be temporary.
What Can I Do to Reduce Memory Loss During Perimenopause?
We all want to be as sharp as possible and keep our memories functioning at their best. But how do we manage it when our hormones are going haywire, and our brain chemistry is in chaos?
Try these expert-approved tips:
Eat a Brain-Healthy Diet
Sugar, refined carbohydrates, and ultra-processed foods are all bad news for your body and brain.
Studies have shown that habitual consumption of these foods leads to poor cognitive function. So, there’s never been a better time to cut out unhealthy junk and switch to nutritious and delicious brain-healthy foods.
The following foods have been shown to have a positive impact on cognitive function and memory.
- Coconut oil: Coconut oil is a rich source of medium-chain fatty acids. The body converts these fatty acids into ketones, which the brain can use for fuel. This is particularly good news for women in perimenopause as the brain’s regular food source, glucose, is in short supply.
- Dark chocolate: Cocoa flavonoids, found in chocolate, have been shown to improve cognitive function and sharpen memory. Cocoa also has a beneficial effect on blood pressure.
- Extra virgin olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest forms of oil, and it comes with many different benefits. It contains naturally occurring antioxidants such as polyphenols. These antioxidants can improve cognitive functions such as learning and memory. Olive oil has also been shown to fight off the proteins which cause Alzheimer’s disease.
- Sunflower seeds: Sunflower seeds are packed with plant-based protein, healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and brain-boosting vitamin E.
- Peanut butter: Like sunflower seeds, peanuts are another fantastic plant-based source of protein that is also rich in vitamin E.
- Beets: Beets are rich in natural nitrates, which increase cerebral blood flow. This automatically boosts brain performance. Beets also work to fight inflammation in the brain and the whole body.
- Celery: Celery is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It contains a compound called luteolin, which boosts cognitive function and protects the brain against Alzheimer’s disease and the effects of aging.
- Turmeric: Turmeric is a superfood packed with anti-inflammatory benefits. It contains a naturally occurring compound called curcumin. Curcumin works to boost levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that protects the brain from cognitive and structural decline.
- Walnuts: This brain-shaped nut packs plenty of brain-boosting benefits. It can improve your mood, memory and protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
- Eggs: Choline found in egg yolks is essential for healthy brain development. Choline breaks down into a chemical called betaine, which acts as a powerful mood booster.
- Berries: Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries contain beneficial flavonoids which reduce inflammation and protect the brain from cognitive decline.
- Leafy greens: Spinach, kale, and broccoli are rich in folate, which protects the brain from damaging levels of homocysteine in the blood.
- Fish: Oily fish is rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that improves neuron function.
- Avocados: Avocados are packed with healthy fats, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Vitamin E has been shown to protect against the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Red Wine: While drinking too much is terrible for your brain’s health, a little red wine in moderation is thought to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Official guidelines recommend that women stick to no more than one glass a day.
- Coffee: Coffee is another beverage that, when consumed in moderation, can have a brain-boosting effect. Caffeine blocks adenosine, a chemical messenger that makes you feel drowsy. It also improves memory function and reduces the risk of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Get Regular Exercise
Physical exercise keeps your body and brain healthy. It doesn’t just boost your muscles. It also increases the growth of new cerebral blood vessels and protects the health of your existing brain cells. Plus, it reduces inflammation around the body, including in your brain.
New research has also found that regular exercise is an important part of the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
So, try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day, for example, going for a walk, gardening, or a light workout at the gym.
Keep Your Brain Active
Keeping your body active has a positive impact on your cognitive function. But don’t forget; exercising your brain also keeps your mind sharp and your memory fine-tuned.
Brain-boosting workouts can include things like Sudoku puzzles and crosswords, quizzes and brain games, and board games such as Scrabble. You could also pick up a new hobby that challenges your cognitive functions, such as learning how to play a musical instrument or speak a new language.
Get Plenty of Sleep
Deep and restful sleep is an essential part of keeping your brain healthy and happy. Lack of sleep leads to low mood, depression, brain fog, and cognitive decline.
So, to stave off perimenopausal memory loss, optimize your sleep cycle and make sure you get the recommended 7-9 hours per night.
Here are some tips for regular, restful sleep.
- Avoid using blue light-emitting devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops for at least one hour before you go to bed
- Cut out caffeine in the afternoons
- Wake up and go to bed at the same time each day, even on weekends
- Keep the lights low in the evening. Bright lights can disrupt your circadian rhythms and reduce levels of melatonin
- Practice relaxing mindfulness, meditation, or yoga
- Get plenty of exercise during the day
Memory loss is a normal part of perimenopause. In most cases, once you enter postmenopausal, your brain will recover, and your cognitive function will return to normal.
However, if memory loss continues into your post-menopausal journey or becomes severe, talk to your doctor. It could be a sign of a more serious cognitive issue.
In some more severe cases of menopause-related memory loss, your doctor may recommend a low dose of menopausal hormone therapy (MHT).
MHT can replace the missing estrogen, which leads to cognitive impairments such as memory loss. It can also help to alleviate a whole host of other menopause symptoms too.
But MHT comes with a considerable list of side effects, and for some people, the risks outweigh the benefits.
If you’re going through perimenopause and you’ve noticed you’re becoming more forgetful, try not to worry. Chances are your memory loss is just a temporary side effect of hormonal changes.
That being said, several other factors can cause, or add to, memory loss. These include:
Excessive alcohol use
Memory loss is a common symptom during perimenopause.
Many women find themselves misplacing objects or forgetting names and appointments. But usually, these kinds of memory issues will resolve themselves once menopause is complete.
That being said, if you’re concerned about memory loss, speak to your doctor. They can help you to identify the reasons behind your issues and tailor a treatment plan for you.
- Evidence for Cognitive Aging in Midlife Women: Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation – PMC (nih.gov)
- Menopause and memory: Know the facts – Harvard Health
- Estrogen and brain: synthesis, function and diseases – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Imaging Study Reveals Brain Changes During the Transition to Menopause | Newsroom | Weill Cornell Medicine
- Habitual sugar intake and cognitive impairment among multi-ethnic Malaysian older adults – PMC (nih.gov)
- Caffeine and adenosine – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Beet Root Juice: An Ergogenic Aid for Exercise and the Aging Brain – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Advances in the research of celery, an important Apiaceae vegetable crop – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study—a randomized controlled trial – PMC (nih.gov)
- Nutritional importance of choline for brain development – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Exercise & Alzheimer’s | Alzheimer’s Organization (alzheimersorganization.org)