Brain Fog: It’s Real!
Brain fog: It’s not in your head. Menopausal memory loss is real.
You’re in the middle of a conversation with a colleague, and lose your thought halfway through a sentence. You call your children by the dog’s name. (If you name your dog after your first born, you might save yourself some embarrassment!). Your desk is plastered with sticky note reminders. You find yourself asking your significant other, “Honey, can you call my phone? I can’t find it.” You wish you could do the same with your keys and wallet.
As hormones fluctuate in your body during menopause, cognitive functions are affected. Doctors say self-reported memory problems are common in women 33-55. Many menopausal women have trouble with working memory, as well as keeping themselves focused, says a study from the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Additionally, the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) showed that cognitive decline is common, and that it can be more difficult to learn new things as you go through menopause. That translates to problems with even some of the most basic real-life tasks, like calculating a tip after a restaurant meal or adjusting an itinerary after unexpected flight changes. (Take a look at this clip of a Menopause Monday event on the TODAY Show discussing the research!)
FYI, the study says hormone therapy works better when you begin early on, say before your last period or by 53 years of age. There might be a detrimental effect if you begin hormones much later in the game—three or four years after your last period.
“If a woman approaching menopause feels she is having memory problems, no one should brush it off or attribute it to a jam-packed schedule. She can find comfort in knowing that there are new research findings that support her experience. She can view her experience as normal,” lead researcher Miriam Weber, Ph.D., said in a statement. Between one-third and two-thirds of women report forgetfulness and other memory difficulties during perimenopause and menopause, according to Weber.
Still, “normal” doesn’t always mean “good.” And it definitely doesn’t mean you have to accept it.
Here are five natural ways to help overcome some of these issues and keep a sharp mind during menopause:
- Get to Know Your Memory
Ruth Curran, creator of Cranium Crunches brain-training games, recommends examining your memory and embracing your strengths and weaknesses. “Sometimes ‘thinking inside the box’—seeing and recognizing our ‘failings’—helps us embrace the way we function right now and make something great out of what we might otherwise see as ‘deficits.’ We need to give ourselves permission to embrace the way we are and maximize our potential.”
Is your problem not being able to focus, or perhaps picking out the most important part of someone’s story? Pay attention to what mental tasks are challenging for you. “Once you know them, you can work by yourself or with a cognitive therapist so that you can best use your unique brain,” Curran says.
- Play Games
Memory games aren’t just for kids! “There is growing evidence (based on functional MRI studies) that mental exercise helps rebalance and rewire the brain,” says Curran. Cranium Crunches uses cognitive puzzles that mimic everyday life to hone your day-to-day attention and processing skills, make new brain connections, and generally up your brainpower. Other websites, including Luminosity, Posit Science, Happy Neuron, and CogniFit, also offer fun brainteasers for cognitive health.
- Break a Sweat
“Physical exercise influences the delivery of neurochemicals throughout the brain that regulate memory (and are directly affected by hormone levels),” Curran says. In fact, a studyin Neuroscience found that running increases levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports neurological health and encourages the growth of new brain cells. Meanwhile, weight training increases levels of insulin-like growth factor, another protein in the brain that promotes cell division, growth, and health. Don’t sweat it, just get moving! Exercise feeds your brain, contributes to your overall health, and helps fight that muffin top.
- Eat Right
Speaking of muffins, I love to eat. Pie. Cake. Ice Cream. Wait, what was I saying? Oh right.
Your brain runs on food, so if you want your brain to work right, you have to feed it properly. Research from Oregon Health and Science University shows that people with diets high in vitamins B, C, D, and E and in omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to suffer from brain shrinkage and other abnormalities associated with Alzheimer’s disease, while people who consume diets high in trans fats—often found in fast, frozen, and processed foods—are more likely to have low scores on thinking and memory tests. So skip the cake (sigh) and have a meal your brain will thank you for.
Menopause stress can contribute to memory loss, weight gain, osteoporosis, and even sagging skin. Basically, it can make us old!
A study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that meditation, a.k.a. mindfulness training, improves working memory and diminishes mind wandering—the two biggest brain problems women experience during perimenopause and menopause. In the study, subjects completed a two-week mindfulness course that involved daily meditation exercises. “Meditation can help restore a healthy chemical and electrical balance in the brain,” Curran says.
You don’t need to have candles or incense or a Yanni recording playing to meditate; all you need is a few minutes in a quiet room where you can practice mindfulness such as focusing on sensory experiences like your breathing, the taste of a piece of fruit, or the sound of an audio recording. Meditation is extremely helpful in lowering blood pressure and minimizing the effects of depression.
Here are some other great tips to help you remember:
- Drink red wine and eat dark chocolate! The active ingredient resveratrol helps improve memory. If you’ve put on a few pounds during menopause, take heart. The study claims it works better on overweight adults. (Consider this one in moderation!)
- Learn to speak another language.
- Play the piano or guitar: musical arts training and cognition are inter-related.
The good news in the SWAN study is that menopausal cognitive decline might be time-limited, so as you near the later stages of menopause, you do feel more clarity. And for me personally, once I started HT, my brain fog lifted and I was fully functioning again!
True self care is about more than your body. It’s about your mind, which is the control center for everything you think, do, and are. Clear cognitive health allows you to be your healthiest, happiest self. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss brain fog with late nights, busy schedules, and to-do lists as long as your arm, but you owe it to yourself to stop making excuses and to get to the real cause.
Remember, just because your challenges are “normal” doesn’t mean you can’t ease them. Be your own best friend—take good care of yourself!