We’ve all been there. You know the scene: You’re at the pediatrician’s office with a sick child who was up all night, which means you were up all night, and the nurse asks for their date of birth. Uhhhh … your mind races. Which kid is sick again? Ah yes, the middle one. November! No, December. December 8th …? you stammer, mortified, as you pray to God you actually brought the right one to the doctor’s office with you.
Or you’re walking up and down the aisles at the grocery store, racking your brain, because you forgot your list. What else did we need? You know there’s at least one more thing, and it’s sitting just on the outskirts of your memory, barely out of reach, but out of reach nonetheless. You know you’ll probably remember what it was as soon as you pull into your driveway.
Or your schedule changes and there’s an unexpected half-day at school. All day long your mind is on normal time and you completely forget to pick up your kids. Then you get the dreaded phone call wondering where you are and your kids give you the “My mom forgot me” eyes when you roll up to get them and they’re standing there alone, the only kids left.
We’ve all had these “mom-brain” moments, but could they also be related to something else? Something beyond the day-to-day grind of motherhood? Experts are saying yes. Turns out, women in their 40s and 50s who are feeling a regular sense of “brain fog” might actually be feeling yet another effect of perimenopause and menopause (because apparently hot flashes, mood swings, weight fluctuation, and irregular periods aren’t quiet enough! NEAT.)
“I have patients complaining all the time about their brain function,” says Cindy Parnes, a gynecologist and founder of the New Jersey Women’s Wellness Center in Montvale. “They are worried. But I tell them there are many Hallmark cards about [midlife forgetfulness], and if Hallmark is making cards, it’s because a lot of people can relate to it.”
Oh, good. At least we can send each other $5 cards about how we can’t remember our zip codes anymore.
This Washington Post article goes on to add that “The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health says up to two-thirds of women in perimenopause report cognitive problems.”
Additionally, Pauline Maki, past president of the North American Menopause Society and professor of psychiatry, psychology and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Illinois at Chicago authored a study on this topic. According to her report, 1 in 10 women will have “clinically significant” menopause-related cognitive changes, even into the postmenopause years.
So it may not be “mom-brain” but more “aging brain” or “perimenopausal brain” that’s causing us to have foggy memories and difficulty concentrating. Either way, super fun. Super. fucking. fun.
“It makes decision-making more difficult and details are often missed,” 47-year old Judith Roszyk explains in an article on healthywomen.org. “My cognitive abilities slow down, my responses slow down; it feels like my neurons are working in slow motion, as if they’re stoned.”
Yes. That’s exactly what it feels like.
This article also references fun nicknames for this brain fog of perimenopause and menopause—catchy phrases like “Menofog. Mentalpause. Perifog. Menobrain”—all of which fit the bill. And, like Hallmark cards, assigning cute names to the bullshittery of womanhood helps it suck just a little bit less, doesn’t it?
It’s also important to note, as The Washington Post reports, that other factors can affect cognitive function in perimenopausal women, such as income, history of trauma, education level, mental health, substance abuse, and infections such as hepatitis C and HIV. These added conditions can make women “more vulnerable to longer-lasting cognitive changes in menopause.”
So the question is: what is causing memory lapses and brain fog? Hormones? Exhaustion because we were up all night having hot flashes? The depression/anxiety roller coaster that perimenopause makes 100 times worse?
Doctors don’t really know, yet—which means there’s not much women can do about the cognitive issues specifically. (Sounds about right.) But we do know that other types of treatment—like addressing mental health issues or trying hormone therapy—help with menopause symptoms, so these treatments might (hopefully) help our brains clear as well, so we can get our shit done.
For example, as Peter Schmidt, chief of the behavioral endocrinology branch at the National Institute of Mental Health points out, depression is a common symptom of perimenopause and menopause, and many women experience it for the first time in their lives during this stage of life. Dr. Schmidt says, in this article by The Washington Post, that declining estrogen can contribute to the onset of depression in women. And, “When you get depressed, it does affect your attention and retention of information,” he adds.
So if you treat symptoms of depression, you might also find that your brain feels sharper as well.
Another major factor that affects brain function is stress. And if we know anything about adulting in our 40s and 50s, is that it can be one of the most stressful times in a woman’s life. For lots of us, this is when we are raising teens, getting them ready to leave the nest, and we’re also caring for our aging parents, while trying to maintain a career.
This time in our lives can truly be a hell-scape of stress.
So that’s something else to “treat” if you can, in the hopes of strengthening your cognitive abilities as well. Coping with stress could include exercise, meditation, sleep apps that help you quiet your brain at night, therapy, medication, or whatever else you find that works for you.
And again, by treating that specific symptom, you might help the clouds around your memory clear a bit too.
Harvard Medical School offers some other tips as well, beyond getting better sleep, trying stress management, and exercise. Their article also says we should exercise all our muscles, including the most vital of all—our brain.
“Did you ever use little tricks to remember things when you were studying for a test in school? Those same mental cheats can help you now as well,” Harvard Health Publishing says. “For example, make up a mnemonic or a rhyme to help you recall information. Or try using visual or verbal clues. Repeating information or instructions to yourself or someone else is another way to help your brain store information more effectively.”
As we all know, the more we use our muscles, the stronger they get. So mental tricks like these can help our brains regain some strength and hopefully maintain it as we age.
And, Harvard Health Publishing says that common memory lapses or occasional “mom-brain”/”brain-fog” type moments happen to all of us. But the article emphasizes that if cognitive issues truly start to impact our lives, we need to see a doctor.
For example, if “memory changes come on suddenly, or are accompanied by hallucinations, paranoia, or delusions” or “memory lapses might put your safety at risk, such as affecting your driving or forgetting food cooking on the stove,” it’s time to call a professional for help.
So I guess we can add this one to the list of “many reasons why it’s so awesome to be a woman.” Not only do we live in a sexist society that’s obsessed with our beauty, weight, and baby-making organs, but also, we might start to lose some brain function as we continue to fight the patriarchy. WTF.
If you’re finding yourself suffering from “brain fog” more than usual, if you’re forgetting things you’ve known for years like your neighbor’s name or how to cook macaroni and cheese or what month and year it is, you’re not alone. You can chalk a lot of it up to being in your 40s and 50s and being perimenopausal or menopausal. You can laugh about it, knowing we’re all blindly wading through the muck together. But don’t hesitate, feel shame, or feel embarrassment in seeking help if your “perifog” or “menobrain” is truly impacting your life. Treating the other symptoms of perimenopause and menopause might actually help the clouds part again.
And suddenly you might remember your kid’s birthday on the fly, and feel like a whole new woman.