This Is Your Brain On Menopause

Contrary to expectations, your mind actually improves. (And if it doesn’t you’ll forget anyway).

By Tara Parker-Pope

Your Brain and Menopause

In an art class at the University of Arizona, 55-year old Suzanne Torsheya stepped back to look at her sculpture in progress. The jumble of wires and tubes was suddenly familiar. "I saw the frazzled nerves and the confusion," she says. "I thought, ‘This is my brain on menopause.’" Torsheya began to describe the work to her instructor, who was about the same age, but the teacher interrupted her, saying, "You don’t have to explain it to me." Chances are you too have had days when your menopausal brain just doesn’t seem to work the way it used to. Is the problem all in your head? Or not?

Your Brain’s Still Blooming

On balance, the research is reassuring. For starters, your brain never stops developing—and where there’s growth, there’s hope. Researchers at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital looked at 163 normal human brains from birth to age 76, focusing on myelin, the insulation wrapped around the wires of nerve cells. Myelin affects how quickly you think, act, learn and process information. Until this study, scientists believed that myelin developed only during infancy and childhood. But the study found myelin also increased dramatically in the fifth decade (by 33 percent) and the sixth decade (by a whopping 55 percent). The later growth spurts all occurred in the part of the brain associated with emotional learning, and that may explain a lot about emotional maturity, notes Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center at McLean: Psychological studies show that midlife is a time when adults have less anxiety and higher self-esteem than before; the extra brain insulation may have something to do with this. As we age, we rely more on the creative, intuitive left side of the brain, says New York University neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg, author of The Wisdom Paradox. Aging also builds up the brain’s reservoir of "generic memories," knowledge gained from experience. This may be why we get better at problem-solving or sizing up a situation—why, in other words, we really do get wiser.

The Estrogen Connection

But something else happens to us with age: We start to lose estrogen, which "lubricates" our brain. Estrogen may raise levels of acetylcholine, which is involved in the thinking process and memory function; it may also increase brain blood flow, which helps gray matter function more efficiently. But does the decline in estrogen explain meno-brain? A study at Kings College in England used MRI scans to study the brains of 32 women who took, or didn’t take, a drug that suppresses ovarian function. The women were given memory tasks while being scanned. In those whose ovaries were working, the brain areas related to memory lit up, indicating increased blood flow. But in those taking the drug (and thus not producing estrogen), the memory area didn’t light up. Worse: When the drug was stopped and the ovaries began working again, most parts of the brain recovered—but one notable area in the front of the brain didn’t. That may help explain the fuzzy-headedness of menopause.

But some researchers argue those changes in brain scans don’t translate into any meaningful loss in daily functioning. In a study in Melbourne, Australia, memory tests showed no detectable difference between menopausal women and women of other ages. Nor was there any difference between women taking estrogen therapy drugs and those not taking the drugs. "This is good news," says study author Victor W. Henderson, a Stanford University neurology professor. "It means the loss of estrogen, at least in the short run, doesn’t affect memory skills."

Does replacing estrogen help your brain? Many doctors are convinced it can make things better. In one study, women who used hormones for 10 years had a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s. And researchers at Yale found that women on daily estrogen actually improved their reading and memory scores.

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