Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Fog Warning Ahead

March 29th, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

As I embark on my 40th year I look ahead to menopause. I guess there is a good chance I’m approaching some foggy years. Brain fog, that is.

In the past week a flurry of online news articles review new research findings on the “brain fog” that many perimenopausal women experience. The brain fog is more easily understood as a slight memory problem, if you take the time to read through the various news stories. A new study analyzed how 75 individual women, aged 40 to 60, rated their memory performance based on factors like how often they forgot details and how serious their forgetfulness was. Researchers also gathered information about the women’s overall health, mood and hormone levels, as well as other menopausal symptoms, and tried to figure out the extent to which this “brain fog” exists. According to news reports, about 41 percent of the women in the study reported having forgetfulness that was “serious,” and those who felt that their memory problems were serious were more likely to score poorly on tests of working memory and attention. Some women who rated their memory problems as serious also reported some depression and other symptoms like hot flashes and sleeping problems. Other researchers suggest that the memory problems women experience are related to changing levels of estrogen in a woman’s body at menopause, but interestingly this new study did not find links to changing hormone levels.

The whole notion of “brain fog” is interesting, and I am suspicious of it as a strictly menopausal symptom. What about the brain fog we all experience when we’re tired or sick or just way too busy? Defining brain fog as a “menopausal” (really, perimenopausal) symptom further defines middle-aged women as somehow less than functional and set them up to be taken less seriously.

Putting this issue aside, though, what I actually find most interesting about all of the news coverage of this study is just how different each report of the study is. I am reminded that we should all be careful of which report we read about a study. For example, the first article I read on this study was placed in the Los Angeles Times and focused on the possible connections between menopausal brain fog, depression, and dementia. I was left feeling like the author of the article inferred that all menopausal women might have depression or dementia and that they should seek treatment. After reading this article I was angry because I felt as if I had been warned that midlife brain fog was the beginning of an inevitable decline for all women. Then I read a WedMD piece that simply described the study and did not concentrate on depression, dementia, or the need for treatment, and I wasn’t really sure what to make of the research study. Finally I read an article by a HealthDay reporter which quoted one of our own, SMCR member Nancy Wood, who reminds readers that “a number of other stressors in life, from work to taking care of children and parents, that pile up around the same time as menopause can hinder memory and ability to concentrate.” In addition, this article’s author states that “memory problems are not necessarily an early sign of dementia” and cognitive ability is regained after other perimenopausal symptoms subside. This third article concluded that the research study is helpful because findings suggest that brain fog is real – that women aren’t crazy – but that it is normal and not that detrimental to women’s long-term cognitive abilities.

Of course, nothing is a substitute for reading the original article published by Miriam Weber and her co-authors this March in the journal, Menopause. But if you need a quick synopsis of what a research study finds just make sure you know its source and think about whether the coverage of the details makes sense! I for one like the tone of the HealthDay news article – that, if brain fog exists, it is temporary and normal and could be caused by lots of things. It is not necessarily an indicator of depression or dementia or even a permanent memory problem.

Just trying to advocate for menopausal literacy! Don’t take those fog advisories to heart before you read about them in full…

  

3 Responses to “Fog Warning Ahead”

  1. Elizabeth Kissling says:

    Thanks for this post, Heather! I haven’t seen any of these articles, but I *have* been very forgetful lately, and trying not to be too worried about it. I’ve also just wrapped up an unusually busy, hectic winter quarter (as you wrote, “What about the brain fog we all experience when we’re tired or sick or just way too busy?”).

    I’ve also had to remind myself that my forgetfulness probably has little to do with middle age or perimenopause — I was forgetful at 25. When I was in grad school, my husband liked to call me the “absent-minded professor in training”.
    :-)

  2. HeatherD says:

    Hi, Liz, thanks for your comments. For some reason my hyperlinks didn’t work on this post, so here are the links to the articles I referred to:
    Los Angeles Times article: http://www.latimes.com/health/boostershots/la-heb-menopause-fog-memory-20120315,0,1448749.story
    WebMD article: http://www.webmd.com/menopause/news/20120316/menopause-brain-fog-may-be-real
    HealthDay article:http://www.philly.com/philly/health/HealthDay662930_20120320_Study_Suggests_Mental__Fog__of_Menopause_Is_Real.html?cmpid=138896554
    Original research article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22415562
    Enjoy!
    And yes, the idea that forgetfulness, trouble with working memory, etc., is related to perimenopause specifically is suspect to me. I get that a majority of perimenopausal women might report that as a sign or symptom but the idea that it is then attributed to perimenopause definitely is something we should still question, I think.

  3. Paula Derry says:

    Well, I haven’t read the original article yet–it’s still on its way from Interlibrary Loan. I personally believe that if an article is made public to the media that scientists, or anyone else for that matter, who want to comment on it should have a free copy made available to them.
    However, based on the summaries I’ve read, there are a lot of questions I would want answered. First, what does this article have to do with perimenopause? A control group is a basic requirement for a scientific study making these kinds of claims. Apparently, there wasn’t one–The authors don’t have a comparison group of women at other times of their lives or men the same ages to demonstrate with data that memory problems change at perimenopause. The authors don’t find a relationship between memory and estrogen level. It’s no surprise when people who are depressed, have somatic complaints, and report memory problems have greater problems basically with concentration.
    I would also want to know the magnitude of the effects the authors found. In other research on cognition and menopause, the absolute magnitude of the differences, in terms of how much they would affect day-to-day functioning, were tiny. 41 percent of the women in this study reported having forgetfulness that was “serious.” 41%? It isn’t my experience that my perimenopausal professional colleagues, doctors, politicians, checkers at the supermarket, etc., are commonly having serious trouble functioning. What do the authors mean by “serious”?
    Perhaps my questions would be answered if I read the original article. Dunno.

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