Does menopause affect your brain? The ovaries and uterus are not the only organs in transition during menopause. Due to decreased estrogen levels, your brain also undergoes chemical changes that can alter the way you think and feel.
How can menopause affect the brain?
Preliminary evidence suggests that decreasing estrogen levels can alter the way the brain encodes and retrieves data. Researchers using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have found, for example, that menopausal women who do not take estrogen may experience less left-brain activation during information encoding.
Perhaps this is why some women reportedly have problems with "left brain" rational or analytical thought processes, such as those related to balancing a checkbook or making decisions. This is known as "cotton head". If it does exist, it appears to be temporary. And studies show that estrogen replacement could reverse it.
Decrease in estrogens
Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex effects of estrogen on the brain. In animals, the hormone has been shown to stimulate the growth of dendrites, hair-like projections that facilitate communication between neurons (brain cells).
It also appears to increase levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. And it appears to help protect neurons in certain areas of the brain, especially the hippocampus, a region critical for learning and memory, from damage that leads to cell death. The possibility that estrogen may delay or even prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease is currently being investigated. So far, studies have only yielded mixed results.
Menopause and mood
What about mood swings? Some women experience them, probably as a result of fluctuating hormone levels. But, contrary to popular belief, women are not at increased risk of depression during this period. In fact, research shows that menopausal women actually have a lower incidence of depression than younger women.
The memory connection
Don't you remember where you left your car keys or why you went into the kitchen? Some women notice some temporary lapses in short-term memory as they approach menopause, and their changing levels of estrogen may be partly to blame.
Researchers have found that areas of the brain involved in memory are sensitive to estrogen. And women taking estrogen show more activity in areas of the brain associated with memory.
Some studies have shown that women who take estrogen perform better on memory tests than those who do not take the hormone. But other studies have not been able to confirm these results. Regardless, most women may not experience any memory problems during menopause.