Have you ever walked into a room only to find yourself wondering what brought you there in the first place? Ever stopped midsentence during a conversation because you couldn’t remember what you were about to say?
If you’re a woman in your 40s or older, you may be experiencing menopause-related cognitive impairment. Akin to the “mommy brain” phenomenon experienced by some women after giving birth and while raising small children, menopause-related cognitive impairment may cause women to experience memory loss, irritability, and a decline in their ability to learn new things, make decisions and perform daily tasks that require concentration or multiple steps.
Cognitive impairment and other signs of menopause
Menopause — defined as the phase that begins when 12 months have passed since a woman had her last period — is a normal part of life and may not need to be treated medically. However, treatments such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are available if cognitive impairment, insomnia, anxiety, depression or other symptoms, including the following, are affecting your life:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Drastic mood changes
- Weight gain
- Irregular periods
- Breast pain
- Decreased libido
- Vaginal dryness
“I receive a lot of complaints of ‘brain fog’ from my patients in their 40s and 50s, and some as early as in their 30s,” says Dr. Latisa Carson, an OBGYN affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “Because of their symptoms, a lot of women are misdiagnosed with anxiety disorder, depression or insomnia, and given prescriptions for psychiatric medications, instead of HRT, by their primary care physicians.”
Treating menopause symptoms with HRT
HRT is the treatment of menopause with medications containing female hormones to replace the hormones the body is no longer naturally producing. HRT can reduce symptoms related to menopause and can also help prevent bone loss and reduce fractures.
“Symptoms of menopause can be mild, moderate or severe,” Dr. Carson says. “Those with mild symptoms may not desire or require hormone replacement therapy. Those with severe symptoms that affect their ability to function usually will. The treatment should be based on the desires of the patient, her family history of cancer, or other factors that may indicate a reason to withhold HRT.”
A correct diagnosis leads to correct treatment
While insomnia can leave you feeling groggy and foggy-headed, insomnia is not the sole cause for menopause-related cognitive impairment. Dr. Carson recommends talking with your doctor about whether a drop in estrogen might be causing both your sleep issues and brain fog.
Cognitive impairment during menopause can also be mistaken for early signs of dementia. However, a woman’s family history, personal medical record, a physical exam and neurological tests should be considered before assuming such a diagnosis.
“Women have to be advocates for their own health,” Dr. Carson says. “If you are not in agreement with the diagnosis you are receiving, seek a second opinion. You definitely want the correct diagnosis to get the appropriate treatment.”
Dr. Carson also recommends women make healthy lifestyle choices to ease the symptoms of menopause. These include regular exercise, adherence to a Mediterranean diet of primarily plant-based foods and healthy fats, good sleep habits, and limiting alcohol consumption.