The Truth About Memory Loss and Aging

Research confirms that attitude, not estrogen, is what will keep you sharp.

By Hilary Macht Felgran

Memory & Aging Research

When we’re constantly being barraged by ads for products like Senior Moment and Focus Factor — not to mention an onslaught of hormone-therapy alternatives that claim to stabilize radical mood swings, along with other menopausal symptoms — it’s no wonder that some of us have come to expect the worst. But are we really doomed to face a downward spiral of mounting depression and confusion?

On the contrary, say the experts. Not only is there no cause for alarm, but the reality may be far better than you think. After years of having the medical community characterize menopause as an illness in need of treatment, research is shedding new, often positive, light on what this biological transition really means to our health. The findings about your brain: Menopause itself does not cause memory loss or depression; overall brain functioning remains consistent and strong in healthy people well into old age; and many of the changes that may occur are controllable or even reversible.

"One of the most pervasive stereotypes about aging is that it causes memory decline," says Thomas Hess, PhD, professor of psychology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who conducted a three-year National Institute on Aging-funded study. According to Hess, a woman’s attitude toward aging may be the best predictor of how she’ll fare. In his study, older adults who read a fictional but very negative article on memory and aging performed significantly worse on subsequent memory tests than those who read an equally bogus but positive article on the subject. "If people are exposed enough to a stereotype, they begin to believe it," he says.

In another recent study, published in the journal Neurology, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago expected to see an overall decline in cognitive functioning as the 803 women they tracked for two years passed through menopause. Instead, they discovered that, on average, subjects’ scores on a variety of periodic memory tests actually improved. "If women do have memory problems as they age, there’s no indication they’re related to hormonal changes," says study author Peter Meyer, PhD, a biostatistician at the Center.

Whether estrogen plays a role in maintaining a healthy brain is still up for debate. The FDA recently added a warning to hormone therapy (HT), indicating that it might increase the risk of dementia. But studies offer very mixed reviews. Some scientists are still investigating a "critical-period" theory, with the idea being that taking HT during a certain part of the perimenopausal transition might ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s, whereas taking it later might worsen memory loss.

Life circumstances appear to be a bigger threat to midlife memory function than estrogen decline, says Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University and author of Intelligent Memory (Viking, 2003). Worries ranging from empty nest syndrome to caring for aging parents can divert valuable mental resources away from focusing on the task at hand, so that a memory doesn’t have a chance to become ingrained.

Research on depression is reaching similar conclusions. Study after study, from Australia to the U.K., show that depression and other mood disorders are biologically unrelated to menopause. A series of surveys of 438 midlife women in Melbourne, for example, consistently demonstrate that negative mood scores relate neither to menopause nor to hormonal changes, but instead often correlate with pessimistic attitudes about aging, negative feelings for one’s spouse or partner, lack of exercise, and high stress levels. Researchers analyzing data from the Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study concur with that conclusion, noting that, "For most women, the menopausal transition was not a time when there was a new episode of depression."

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