Mental fuzziness isn’t uncommon in middle age, and I’m no stranger to it. I fumble over words sometimes. I open a new browser on my computer, but then forget what I was going to do with that browser. I call my dog by the names of our old dogs who died a few years ago. Now we have a name for it: Menopause Brain.
This forgetfulness isn’t uncommon, but it’s unsettling all the same. My dad has Alzheimer’s and I spend a lot of time wondering if my forgetfulness is the sign of what my future holds. But recent research suggests that there may be another cause for that mental fuzziness that can happen in middle age: menopause.
According to the Guardian, around two-thirds of uterus-owners in menopause or perimenopause report feeling “brain fog,” or difficulty making use of new information. As a refresher course, a person with a uterus is deemed to be in menopause when they haven’t had a period for a year or more. Perimenopause is that stage before menopause, when levels of estrogen rise and fall unevenly. The average age of menopause is 51; for perimenopause, it’s 47.
“There is a lot of speculation about why some women [and uterus-owners] suffer more from menopause brain than others,” Professor Kerryn Phelps wrote in The Guardian. “It may be related to estrogen levels, or to the interaction between hormone levels and neurotransmitters in the brain in individuals.”
In middle age, progesterone levels drop first, which can cause irritability, mood swings, sleep disturbances, and brain fog. Dips in estrogen, which come later, cause the more typical symptoms of menopause, like hot flashes, mood changes, irritability, mental confusion, and lack of energy – all of which can also contribute to brain fog. There can be cumulative effects to these symptoms, as well, with lack of sleep causing symptoms of menopause brain.
These changes can often coincide with several lifestyle changes as well – an empty nest, aging parents, career changes – that can also be emotionally unsettling. Phelps writes that changes to brain function should be considered “in the context of everything else” going on in a person’s life.
Personally, the stress of worrying about my forgetfulness tends to make the problem worse. I stress about why I’m slower to recall certain words or forget what I was literally just thinking about, which causes more stress, less sleep, and more brain fog. Rinse and repeat.
According to WebMD, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston found that certain memory tasks dip as estrogen levels drop, typically between the ages of 45 to 55.
“Many women fear that the memory changes they are experiencing at this time might be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease or another cognitive disorder,” Pauline Maki, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago told WebMd. “These findings should give women reassurance that these changes are normal.”
Okay, let’s pause here for a minute to say PHEW.
According to the Guardian, there’s an association between loss of verbal memory skills and the severity of hot flashes, as well. For instance, one study found that those who experienced the most hot flashes in a day also suffered the most with “being at a loss for words.”
Additionally, a study at the University of Rochester in New York evaluated 117 middle-aged uterus-holders and found that decreases in attention/working memory, verbal learning, verbal memory and fine motor speed may be most evident in the first year after the person’s last menstrual period. People who have had their uterus or ovaries surgically removed at a younger age have also show more pronounced effects on the brain.
What to Do About Middle-Age Brain Fog
In addition to patiently waiting for menopause brain to run its course, there are a few things we can do to feel a little less foggy, most of which are good ol’ fashioned self-care practices. Things like eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, and making sure to exercise. You don’t need to sign up for CrossFit or start marathon training to get the benefits either; moderate exercise like brisk walking or using the elliptical machine work. Don’t forget about exercising your brain with things like crossword puzzles and learning new skills.
And then there’s the ultimate easier-said-than-done wellness recommendation to keep stress under control. Ultimately, I know that losing sleep worrying I’ll get Alzheimer’s disease isn’t only not helping, it might actually make things worse. So if you’re if you’re feeling a little more forgetful lately, take a deep breath and talk to your doctor. The cause might be less in your head and more in your uterus.