Women in their 40’s and 50’s experience menopause as a natural part of life. Along with the well-known symptoms of hot flashes and weight gain, many women report forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. It is believed this “brain fog” is caused by changes in estrogen, progesterone and possibly other hormone levels. Heather Bimonte-Nelson, Ph.D., studies the link between memory loss and menopause in her laboratory at Arizona State University.
“We know that women are at a higher risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than men,” says Dr. Bimonte-Nelson, a researcher and psychology professor. “Why is that? One reason could be the dramatic change in hormone levels that occurs during menopause.”
Dr. Bimonte-Nelson is researching the impact of both natural menopause and menopause caused by surgical removal of the uterus and/or ovaries in rat studies. She and her team have shown that the natural transition to menopause is a particularly sensitive time of memory change in rat models. This finding builds on studies showing similar memory challenges in women as they move into menopause. Some types of hysterectomies can cause menopause to begin early and can also be accompanied by memory issues. It has yet to be determined which specific reproductive tissues contribute to these effects.
It has long been thought that the uterus has no function outside of pregnancy. Dr. Bimonte-Nelson and her team are debunking that theory. “Our recent study results show that a female’s reproductive organs have value beyond pregnancy,” says Dr. Bimonte-Nelson. “When we removed the uterus but kept the ovaries, the rats experienced memory impairment, especially when having to remember numerous items of information.”
There is some research that shows women who have had a uterus-only hysterectomy can experience an increased risk of dementia if the surgery happened before natural menopause. The question is why does removing the uterus alone have an impact on cognitive function?
“We know that the transition to menopause, whether natural or surgically-induced, can lead to changes in memory and thinking,” explains Bimonte-Nelson. “We are now evaluating the type of memory changes that are most extreme and how the uterus plays a role.”
Dr. Bimonte-Nelson wants to provide women with knowledge about menopause and how to best prepare for this stage in life. While we know menopause can cause memory and thinking problems, she states further research is needed to better understand why.
If you have questions about menopause, Dr. Bimonte-Nelson recommends spending some time on the North American Menopause Society website. It offers excellent updated and detailed information about menopause and staying healthy in midlife.