The symptoms of menopause are numerous and we now know that a large part of women’s working memory is affected by menopause. Memory is affected by both the levels of hormones and their fluctuations. As a result, researchers are looking for ways to mitigate memory problems. Thankfully, we are more aware of this risk as more treatments are studied to help women stay as sharp as they were in their pre-menopausal days.
Memory Decline Offset by Estradiol Therapy
A recent study published in the prestigious Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism suggests that postmenopausal women who were prescribed estradiol therapy (ET) had better cognition than those who did not take the medication over the course of the study. Estradiol is a naturally occurring, sometimes called “bioidentical” form of estrogen. The research team used word tests to see how patients would be able to recall words at the ends of a sentence during times of stress or no stress, and with or without estradiol.
It should be noted that the 49 women on the study were not already taking any other medications that could affect working memory (e.g., antidepressants, amphetamines, etc.) so that the results would be directly related to taking ET versus the control group, and the women did not have any co-morbid medical conditions such as cardiovascular problems that could have an effect (likely adverse) on the results of the study.
Age, Stress and Working Memory
It’s that “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, when you know a person’s face but not her name, or you know exactly what you want to say but are grasping for the key word to help the sentence make sense. A friend once forgot the word for the season “winter” and said, “You know, a time of snow,” in exasperation when the word escaped her in a moment of poetic forgetfulness.
Cognitive decline as we age is common, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be as fast, or as permanent, and maybe it can even be reversed. Aging has been associated with dysfunction in parts of the brain in response to stress. Such dysfunction can have a snowball effect when people experience chronic stress along with aging and estrogen deficiency. Taken together such circumstances can lead to additional memory problems as well as related health implications.
Although the current study was small, its findings have significant implications, and could benefit from a repeat with a larger patient population. The research team concluded that ET provides relief from menopause-related symptoms, including limiting the effects of stress on working memory. This is good news at a time in history when memory issues appear to be common among the older population. Anything to keep brains as strong as bodies as people enter the third of life, is most welcome. The bottom line is this: estrogen therapy can reduce the stress response, and its “downstream” adverse effect on memory. However, it remains unclear whether such hormonal interventions can fully mitigate the effects of stress on cognition. Further study will help us gain a clearer understanding of just how best to protect memory in postmenopausal women.