September 23, 2003
Forgetfulness has long been a chief complaint among women going through the change of life. A new long-term study indicates, however, that menopause does not actually bring on memory loss in older women, despite popular beliefs to the contrary.
Researchers gave memory tests to 803 women, aged 42 to 52, who had not yet reached menopause or were in the early stages of the transition, a period known as perimenopause. They were asked to recite long strings of numbers backwards and to match symbols and digits rapidly. The memory tests were then repeated annually over the next six years.
Rather than finding that mental abilities declined, as they had expected, the scientists found that memory skills actually increased overall in the women tested. The study is important because it shows that there is little or no risk for immediate memory loss during perimenopause, says Samuel E. Gandy, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation.
The issue for Alzheimers disease is that it begins a decade or more before clinical cognitive or psychological changes are apparent. There remains an issue of whether perimenopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) would be useful in preventing Alzheimer's disease later on, and this study does not answer that question. Scientists are still trying to unravel the role of estrogen and other factors in the onset of memory loss and Alzheimer's disease.
Some lab reports in animals and health surveys indicate that estrogen has protective effects on the brain and lowers levels of beta amyloid, the toxic protein that builds up in the brains of those with Alzheimer's. However, a study earlier this year found that HRT--a combination of the female sex hormones estrogen and progestin--did nothing to ward off Alzheimer's among mentally alert senior women aged 65 and up, and another suggested it may actually increase the risk. Whether estrogen or estrogen-like drugs may afford protection for younger women remains unknown.
Researchers in the current study, from Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, speculate that the stress of the life transition, coming at a time when women may be coping with hardships like aging parents and troubled teens, may contribute to a woman's sense that her memory is fading. Additional research is needed to define further the roles of overall health, smoking, depression, stress, obesity and other lifestyle factors in the onset of mental decline and Alzheimer's disease.
The study appeared in the September 23, 2003 issue of the medical journal Neurology. For more on menopause and ongoing research aimed at Alzheimer's prevention, visit www.ALZinfo.org.
By Toby Bilanow, Medical Writer, for www.ALZinfo.org. The Alzheimer's Information Site. Reviewed by Samuel E. Gandy, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board, Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation.