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Why am I having trouble concentrating during menopause?

Dr. Rovenia Brock, PhD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Many women experience memory and concentration problems during perimenopause and after menopause. Some scientists believe that you may be able to minimize these problems with blueberries. Pint for pint, blueberries may contain more antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable. The most powerful health-promoting compounds in these little blueberries are anthocyanins, phytochemicals that belong to the flavonoid family—which, in addition to combating the free-radical damage that leads to heart disease, may also boost brain power. In laboratory studies, aging animals fed a blueberry-rich diet for four months performed as well in memory tests as younger animals.

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Even a happy, well-adjusted nuclear physicist can be tripped up by menopause. There are a number of psychological nuisances menopausal women complain about, but trouble concentrating tops the list. The scientific evidence supporting the link between cognitive changes and menopause is weak, though. For a while we thought that estrogen protected the brain, but replacing it didn’t do much to fix the problem. Plus, not all women are affected. Bottom line, we still don’t know if the trouble is due to waning estrogen, stress, sleep loss, depression, anxiety, information overload, or (swallow), the beginnings of age-related dementia or even a combination of some or all of the above.

During and after the menopause transition, many women are troubled to find they have difficulty remembering things, experience mental blocks or have trouble concentrating. Not getting enough sleep or having sleep disrupted can contribute to memory and concentration problems. Stress associated with major life changes—such as caring for aging parents or having your children leave home—can also interfere with sleep. And recently, the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation, funded by the National Institute on Aging and published in the May 2009 issue of the journal Neurology, confirmed that there are real cognitive changes that take place in perimenopausal women, especially in the area of learning. Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles looked at 2,362 women aged 42 to 52 and gave them tests of verbal memory, working memory and processing speeds at four different points in their menopause transitions: premenopause, early perimenopause, late perimenopause and postmenopause. They found that women do not learn as well in early or late perimenopause but regain their capacities to learn once menopause has been reached.

The study also uncovered a possible explanation. Researchers concluded that women taking hormones before their last period improved their cognitive skills, but for women who started hormones long after menopause, hormone therapy had a detrimental effect. This is just one of the many the risks and benefits of hormone therapy you may want to discuss with your healthcare professional. And keep in mind that although they can be upsetting, these memory-related issues are likely to improve after menopause and are rarely associated with serious medical conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

Other strategies for coping with memory problems and lack of concentration include:

  • Recognize that these symptoms may be caused by menopausal changes and aging and don't put pressure on yourself.
  • Rely on strategies for remembering things, such as developing daily reminder lists or messages to help get you through periods of forgetfulness.
  • Practice stress-reduction techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, yoga and meditation, and try to be physically active on a regular basis.

If you find the strategies you've tried don't relieve your discomfort, ask your healthcare professional about medical options.

Changes in estrogen levels during menopause have been suspected of causing weakened concentration, but this is not proven. Menopause symptoms are well known to contribute to sleep problems, however, and poor sleep definitely affects concentration. Concentration issues can be a bother, but if they are affecting productivity at home or work, talk to your doctor. It is important to understand if there are other medical issues that should be considered.

The so-called brain fog of menopause is real for some women, says Margery Gass, MD, former executive director of the North American Menopause Society. During the change, between one- to two-thirds of women report forgetfulness and other mental hiccups. Perimenopausal women may have a tougher time staying focused, solving difficult tasks, or retaining new information. But don't despair. According to Gass, some studies suggest that these memory lapses last only as long as menopause. Think of it as pregnancy brain for the menopause set.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.