Study disputes notion that menopause makes women forgetful

Tuesday, September 23rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Despite frequent complaints of forgetfulness among women going through menopause, a new study suggests their memories are just fine.

Researchers expecting to see signs of mental decline in 803 menopausal women found evidence to the contrary _ the women's scores on periodic memory tests improved slightly over time.

``We are not saying that the forgetfulness is all in their heads,'' said lead researcher Peter M. Meyer, a biostatistician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. ``The question we were trying to answer was: Is this forgetfulness reflective of something bigger, below the surface,'' such as the onset of mental decline?

Meyer said his data suggest the answer is no.

Any forgetfulness during the years surrounding menopause is probably not from any harmful hormonal changes in the brain, but rather due to women being busy, distracted and stressed-out from ordinary pressures of mid-life.

Many women complain that they become more forgetful around the time of menopause, and some doctors believe that hormonal changes are the reason.

Naturally occurring estrogen is thought to help keep brain cells healthy, but it drops during menopause. In fact, the hormone supplement industry was built partly on the premise that estrogen pills could keep women's minds sharp _ an idea that has recently been challenged.

The new study appears in Tuesday's issue of the journal Neurology.

``It may be that the brain does not need the hormones as much as we think,'' Russel Thompson of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System wrote in an accompanying commentary.

Other research has suggested that midlife forgetfulness might be due to stresses such as children becoming teenagers and parents dying. Meyer said those stresses, rather than true mental decline, could account for what some women describe as memory loss.

Dr. Sam Gandy, a neurologist at Thomas Jefferson University, said the study is ``reassuring in the short term'' but does not settle whether the hormonal changes in menopause might hasten mental decline and lead to Alzheimer's disease later on.

The brain processes involved in Alzheimer's typically begin at least 10 years before symptoms occur, so the Chicago women would need to be followed longer to see if the early results hold up, said Gandy, a scientific adviser to the Alzheimer's Association.

The study involved white and black women from Chicago ages 42 to 52, most of whom had not yet reached complete menopause, meaning they still menstruated occasionally, though their bodies were producing dwindling levels of estrogen and progestin hormones.

The participants were not taking hormone supplements, which were recently linked to an increased risk of dementia in older women.

The women were given two standard memory tests every year for an average of a little more than two years.

On one test requiring reversing a string of numbers from memory, scores improved by an average of about 3 percent.

On the other test, women had 90 seconds to read rows of symbols and recall numbers previously assigned to each symbol. Those scores improved by an average of about 8 percent for premenopausal women. They declined slightly for postmenopausal women, but no more than would be expected with normal aging, Meyer said.

Diane Dobry, a 46-year-old New Yorker whose grandmother has dementia, said having two children in college and dealing with multiple tasks at work might help explain her own memory lapses. Dobry, communications director for Teachers College, Columbia University, said she sometimes tells her children: ``I have to try to think for everybody, and it's spreading thin.''

But Dobry said she is skeptical of the findings ``because you always hear in a year or two, a study that says the complete opposite.''

For now, she said she will stick with ``taking classes and trying to prove I can learn new things'' to help keep her brain in shape.