Most women go through ]]>menopause]]> between the ages of 45 and 55. Menopause is when a woman’s ovaries stop making the hormones estrogen and progesterone, leading to the end of her menstrual periods.

Many women report that they become more forgetful during and after menopause. Since estrogen is involved in the brain’s signaling system, it makes sense that memory might decline as estrogen levels are decreasing. But previous studies have not tested this theory.

A new study in the September 2003 issue of Neurology gave 803 women ages 42–52 a memory test every year for six years. They found that memory test scores did not decline as the women progressed further into menopause. In fact, most of the women’s scores actually improved over time.

About the Study

This study included 803 African American and white women from Chicago who were participating in the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN). The women were classified into four groups, according to their menopausal status:

  • Premenopausal –predictable menstrual periods during the past year
  • Early perimenopausal – a menstrual period in the previous three months, with less predictable menstrual periods during the past year
  • Late perimenopausal – no menstrual periods in the previous three months, but within the past year
  • Postmenopausal – no menstrual periods in the past year

When the study began, the women were premenopausal or perimenopausal, aged 42–52, with a uterus, and not pregnant or breastfeeding. The women had not taken ]]>hormone replacement therapy (HRT)]]> in the previous three months. Every year for the next six years, the women took two memory tests:

  • A test of working memory, where the women repeated backward as many increasingly long strings of digits as possible without error
  • A test of perceptual speed, where the women identified as many matching figures as possible in 90 seconds

At each visit, the researchers identified the women’s current menopausal status. After six years, the researchers tested whether the women’s memory test scores declined over time. They also tested whether moving from one menopausal status to another affected the scores.

The Findings

The women’s memory test scores improved slightly—but significantly—over time. There was no significant change in scores, however, as the women progressed from one menopausal phase to another. Within each menopausal status group, test scores did not decline over time, except in the postmenopausal group, where perceptual speed decreased significantly over time.

A limitation of this study is that it only tested working memory and perceptual speed. Other tests of brain functioning, such as verbal and short-term memory tests, may be more affected by hormonal changes.

How Does This Affect You?

Before the study began, the researchers thought that progression through menopause would be associated with a decline in at least certain aspects of brain function. What they found, however, was that working memory and perceptual speed actually improved over time and was not affected by menopausal status.

Why did the women’s scores improve as they got older? One explanation is that the women learned how to take the tests better. If this “learning effect” was large enough, it may have covered up a modest decline in brain function with age.

Some previous studies have suggested that HRT might prevent age-related memory loss. But these results indicate that menopause is not associated with memory loss, suggesting that HRT is probably not an effective preventative therapy.

So even though going through menopause does not appear to cause a significant decline in brainpower, simple aging is often associated with some degree of memory loss. Are there ways to preserve your memory as you get older? Previous research has suggested that factors such as ]]>depression]]> , stress, and ]]>anxiety]]> can lead to forgetfulness. Seek professional help if these feelings are getting in the way of your life.

Your lifestyle can also affect how well your brain functions. Physical inactivity, smoking, ]]>obesity]]> , and poor sleep may contribute to memory loss. In contrast, physical exercise, mentally challenging activities and hobbies, and stimulating social interactions can help preserve your memory. So take a walk, sign up for an exercise class, play bridge with your friends. Engaging in activities that stimulate your body and mind may help keep your memory sharper than you think.