The late British actor and comedian Norman Wisdom perhaps said it best: “As you get older three things happen. The first is your memory goes … and I can’t remember the other two.”
It’s an amusing quote, but one that also hits home for any number of older adults who, along with needing reading glasses and a little extra fiber, have discovered that their memories aren’t what they used to be.
“As people age normally, there is often some slowing of their processing speed,” said Dr. Karen Blank, medical director of Hartford Hospital’s Memory Disorders Center. “A lot of people experience that ‘tip of the tongue’ feeling in recalling names or the movie they saw last night, but they can’t quite retrieve it.” And that’s pretty typical, according to Blank.
However, for women who are going through perimenopause and menopause, forgetfulness and memory loss can feel especially pronounced, prompting concerns and even alarm.
“Scientific literature states that one-third to two-thirds of women going through this stage describe and experience cognitive changes,” she said. “And it seems that most of those have to do with memory.”
And while hot flashes and night sweats tend to be among the more common menopausal complaints, the decline of estrogen in a woman’s body can produce a wide variety of other symptoms, too.
“What we know and see is a certain decrease in the quality of life that may occur during menopause and perimenopause,” said Dr. Sheila Gately, a general gynecologist at Hartford Hospital. “It can take many forms; disturbed sleep pattern, increase in anxiety, and short-term memory loss.”
Adding another wrinkle is that the transition can occur over a 10-year period, making it sometimes difficult to tell the difference between menopause issues and age-related ones. “We need to keep in mind that this transition occurs at the same time as physical aging,” said Gately, “and many factors come into play.”
Included among them are things like midlife social adjustments, physiological changes, and other contributing influences that can complicate the question of what falls under the normal spectrum of memory loss and what could be early signs of a more significant neurocognitive disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The first thing, said Blank, is to take any concerns that you might have to your primary care physician or gynecologist to either screen for, or rule out, possible causes.
In addition to menopause and other common age-related bouts of mild forgetfulness, there can be physiological reasons for memory loss, including diabetes and other diseases. “There are some thyroid imbalances that can be part of what a person is experiencing,” she said, “and there are also certain deficiencies in nutrition that can be a cause.”
Other contributors to forgetfulness include taking certain medications. “Anything over-the-counter that has ‘P.M.’ in the title can make a person feel very dull and forgetful,” said Blank. “They are not doing you any favors when it comes to forgetfulness.”
High levels of stress and multitasking can also play a part in occasional memory loss for both men and women, according to Dr. Richard Marottoli, medical director of the Dorothy Adler Geriatric Assessment Center at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
“Today, given the deluge of information and the volume in which it comes at us, contributes to overload and stress, making it hard to pay attention, focus and recall,” he said. “Other big things include lack of sleep, depression and alcohol use.”
Marottoli also reassured that, for the most part, things like occasionally forgetting where you put your keys or the name of a familiar song are completely normal for people in midlife.
More concerning, however, are things like forgetting important dates and events, or heavy reliance on memory aids and family members to help in recall.
Additionally, drastic behavior changes and abrupt deviations in day-to-day functioning, along with difficulty completing daily tasks such as driving to familiar places, becoming repetitive without awareness or showing uncommonly poor judgment can all be symptoms of a more serious condition and should be addressed by a physician.
However, overall, it’s uncommon that occasional memory loss is indicative of a more serious neurological disorder, said Blank. “The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in women in their early 50s and 60s is quite a bit less than 1 percent,” she said.
And there are things women can do to help combat occasional memory loss, including beneficial activity, said Marottoli, which can include physical, aerobic, and cognitive activities. “Anything that cognitively engages your mind is helpful. It doesn’t really matter what the activity is as long as it engages you and you enjoy it.”
According to Gately, the transition into menopause and middle age can be an ideal time to stop and take inventory of ourselves and our bodies. “This time of life is a good opportunity to become more mindful, become more single-focused and slow down a bit and make sure we’re taking really good care of ourselves and not overdoing it with things that may take us out of the moment.”
Most important, she said, is not to ignore or dismiss any concerns that you might have. “Come in and talk to a provider,” Gately said. “A lot of times women feel silly. But maybe the story you tell will put up a red flag that will explore something you weren’t considering. We should always follow our gut for our families and for ourselves.”