Menopause Isn't the End for the Brain

Postmenopausal women have same cognitive function as those in other stages of menopause

January 18, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

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(dailyRx News) Though menopause marks the end of a woman's ability to have kids, it doesn't mean the end for other facets of the mind and body.

Hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms were not linked with a woman's cognitive abilities, according to a recently published study.

The study has shed new light on how the brain works as women age and their fertility changes.

"Keep your mind sharp: learn something new."

Miriam Weber, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and colleagues looked at whether brain and cognitive function differ as women go through the different stages of reproductive aging.

The researchers also wanted to see whether hormones or menopausal symptoms could predict how the brain functions during menopause itself.

The study included 117 middle-aged women who were divided into one of four groups. The groups were set according to the different reproductive stages. In the late reproductive group, women first began to notice changes in their periods.

Those in the early menopausal and late menopausal transition groups had greater fluctuations in their cycle with changes of seven days or more to 60 days or longer. The last group consisted of early post-menopausal women who had not had a period for a year.

Women were recruited through advertisements tied to the University of Rochester Medical Center between January 2005 and December 2006. More than 90 percent were white, 6 percent were African American and 2 percent were Asian.

Those who had histories of neurological disease, mental illness or had surgical menopause were excluded.

The women reported their menopausal symptoms, which consist of hot flashes, mood swings and change in sleep patterns. Blood samples were drawn to measure their estrogen levels and other hormones.

Researchers tested participants on a variety of cognitive skills, including fine motor skills like writing and dexterity, memory and learning, attention span and working memory, which is the ability to take, manipulate and store new information.

They found that women just past menopause in the fourth group did not do as well on the motor skill, verbal learning and verbal memory tests compared to those in the late reproductive stage.

The early post-menopausal women, however, scored the same overall on the other cognitive tests compared to the other three groups.

Researchers also found that having difficulties sleeping or feelings of anxiety and depression did not predict whether the women would have memory problems or changes in hormone levels.

“By identifying how these memory problems progress and when women are most vulnerable, we now understand the window of opportunity during which interventions – be those therapeutic or lifestyle changes – may be beneficial,” Dr. Weber said in a press release.

“But the most important thing that women need to be reassured of is that these problems, while frustrating, are normal and, in all likelihood, temporary.”

The authors noted that their results may not be generalized to a wider population of women since they surveyed only a small sample of more highly educated and functioning women.

They also did not compare results with those of women who could still reproduce or those who were in the late postmenopausal stage. Another study is already underway to measure cognitive changes among a larger sample of women.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the URMC Clinical Research Center, was published January 2 in Menopause: The Journal of The North American Menopause Society.

One of the authors received consultant fees from Noven Pharmaceuticals.

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Review Date: 
January 15, 2013
Last Updated:
January 31, 2013