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Memory and Menopause

My mother was recently telling me of something that had just happened to her.

Last week she had made a trip to deposit a check at the local bank only to discover once she got there, that her check was nowhere to be found. She thought: Hadn’t I tucked it inside one of the pockets of my purse? She ransacked her  clutch bag, emptying every pocket onto the ledge of the ATM machine. Where did the check go?

She then returned home and found the check neatly tucked inside another purse. This has been a familiar scenario with her since she turned 50. She cannot help but wonder if memory loss is an unavoidable part of menopause. Is this an irreversible condition that we can more or less resign ourselves to as we move on in years?

Much to both our surprise, recent studies suggest otherwise. In one study, 803 women between the age of 42-52 were tested once each year over the course of 6 years. The results showed that memory performance improved by an average of 3% among the women, an improvement that surprised even the researchers themselves.

What do these results mean? One conclusion is that there is really no concrete evidence behind the assumption that declining estrogen levels in the brain are responsible for memory loss experienced by so many menopausal women.

Other studies suggest that as women go through midlife change, their ability to multitask decreases. “Multitasking appears as an estrogen-facilitated capacity and a 60 year old woman is no longer able to multitask like a 30 year old,” writes Dr. Cheri Quincy( Sonoma Medicine Fall’05). It is not inconceivable that what she had construed as ”memory loss” is actually an instance of doing too much at once. In her hurriedness to kill 3 errands at the same time—go to the post office, get milk at the store, put my check in the bank—she had placed the check in the wrong purse without realizing it—a mistake that any one, even a younger woman, could have made.

All this is not to say that “foggy brain” does not exist. Some decline in mental sharpness is part of the aging process. However, turning foggy at 50 is not a sign that we are all heading towards the end.
On the contrary, there is a lot we can do to preserve the brain.

Feed it Good Fats: Intelligence is helped by smooth transition between neurons. The nerve fibers of the brain cells are coated with myelin, a kind of fatty substance which helps the cells make more synaptic connections—the basis of the thinking process. Taking fish oil( omega fatty 3 acids) regularly will definitely ensure that your brain cells will negotiate more connections.

Feed it Vitamins C and E: Prevent free radical damage in your brain by making sure that your diet is rich in antioxidants—vitamins B( including folic acid, C, E ) and selenium. Eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Take a multi-vitamin supplement.

Give it Adequate Sleep: Sleep is the natural restorer of muscles and tissues. Research has shown that a rested brain works better than an “all-nighter.” In one study, 106 volunteers were shown a puzzle which they had to solve. One group was kept awake all night; the other allowed to sleep. Those kept awake were less successful in solving the puzzle. Scientists believe that sleep allowed the brain to restructure the information from the previous day and assisted the sleepers to solve the puzzle.

Exercise Your Brain: The brain will develop new neural pathways when it is confronted with something new and unfamiliar. So get out of any rut that you are in. Do something different: take a holiday, start a business, write a book, design a website, move to a new community, do crossword puzzles, learn a new language. Give your brain a chance to develop new modes of thinking.

It is so easy to blame menopause for a whole series of problems—weight gain, memory loss, fuzzy thinking. Far better it is to see that there are things we can do to turn these problems around.

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