Around 75% of people experience memory issues when they get older, with women more likely to contract Alzheimer's and dementia. To add to this, as women reach menopause, they also struggle with forgetfulness. Some studies have found that women have difficulty with verbal fluency during these times too.
Nevertheless, women with healthy aging brains continue to have an edge on their male counterparts when it comes to memory function, even in midlife and older age. In fact, some studies seem to suggest that, even from childhood, women outperform men in memory tasks. This is especially true of verbal memory. The difference becomes more significant after puberty, and continues into adulthood.
How do hormones affect memory?
Researchers from Boston, MA, have been analyzing how menopause and levels of sex steroids might affect certain aspects of memory.
Neuroactive sex steroids hormones, including estradiol, are believed to affect learning and memory in women, and they may underlie sex differences in learning and memory performance.
Estradiol affects the function and structure of brain regions that relate to memory. As levels fluctuate during the menstrual cycle, verbal working memory performance can change as well.
To find out more, the team decided to investigate memory function as it relates to estradiol levels in early midlife. They hypothesized that sex differences, reproductive status, and hormones might correlate with changes in memory performance.
They also wanted to find out which memory domains are most likely to be impaired in menopausal women and whether the level of memory function on early midlife might predict the future development of Alzheimer's, based on family history.
Despite a dip at menopause, women outperform men in memory tests
The participants in this study were 212 men and women aged between 45-55 years.
Challenging memory tests were used to assess episodic memory, semantic processing, and executive function. Cognitive testing was used to measure verbal intelligence. The research team compared performance between men and women, and also between women at different stages, before, during, and after menopause.
The results showed that women outperformed men, and that women who were premenopausal or perimenopausal scored better than those who were postmenopausal. Their performance was linked to estradiol levels, regardless of chronological age.
As estradiol declines during menopause, women find it much harder to learn something for the first time and to retrieve information. However, they continue to maintain and consolidate stored memories effectively. The findings suggest that different parts of the brain are affected.
Previous studies have proved that women with a longer reproductive period, and therefore greater exposure to estrogens, have better immediate and delayed verbal memory in mid-to late-life.
A fall in estradiol levels during menopause has also been found to correspond directly to changes in brain activity in the hippocampus, which is vital for memory function.
Is there a link to Alzheimer's?
The parts that are affected appear to be different from those affected by early Alzheimer's disease, and the team found no indication of a link between menopausal brain deficits and Alzheimer's.
Forgetfulness and brain fog have often been attributed to job stress and the need to multitask, rather than menopausal transmission. However, the current study confirms suggestions that menopause, and more specifically, estradiol, plays a role.
The researchers concluded that the cognitive changes that occur during menopause are most likely related to hormonal processes affecting frontal executive neural networks, rather than temporolimbic dysfunction.
Other potential causes of memory problems, say the researchers, could be estrogen from sources other than estradiol, a result of psychosocial pressures, or symptoms of some other passing condition.
They conclude that women's memories are better than men's in early midlife, and when women's memories start to decline, this is due to reproductive status rather than age. The decrease in ovarian estradiol plays a key role.
They hope that more research will lead to a better understanding of which changes in memory relate to healthy aging, and which ones are early signs of Alzheimer's and future memory loss.