You've probably heard of "a senior's moment." How about menopausal memory?
A new study shows that women approaching menopause, a period marked by major hormonal swings and unpleasant hot flashes, become slightly slower at learning new things.
"It isn't like you are forgetting stuff or can't learn stuff, but simply that it takes a bit longer to process information," said lead researcher Gail Greendale at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles.
Dr. Greendale noted that many premenopausal women have commented on the fact that they don't feel as mentally sharp as they once did. Some women fear that they may be developing Alzheimer's disease.
The UCLA study is the first to chart those perceived cognitive changes in a systematic fashion.
The good news is that the memory problems are a "transient phenomenon," Dr. Greendale said. In the post-menopause period, their memory returns to the premenopausal level.
"Put into the words of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the bottom line is 'don't panic' - it's actually just temporary and it's going to go away."
For the study, the researchers recruited 2,362 women between the ages of 42 and 52 to cover the transition from pre-to-post menopause. The volunteers were put through a series of memory tests that were repeated over a four-year period.
Usually when people repeat a test, their performance tends to improve. But the study, published in journal Neurology, revealed that scores during "perimenopause" - the time when menstrual periods are less frequent but have not yet stopped - did not show the same degree of improvement, compared with either before or after menopause.
Perimenopause can last for several years.
Researchers aren't sure why women experience temporary memory problems, but they have a few theories. Dr. Greendale speculated the menopausal symptoms - such as hot flashes and night sweats - may prevent women from getting a good night's sleep which, in turn, impairs their cognitive functions during the day.
It's also possible that huge swings in hormone levels could be to blame. "The brain is chocked full of estrogen receptors in critical areas for memory," she noted.
The study also found that hormone replacement therapy seems to lessen the memory problems of perimenopause. Dr. Greendale cautioned that HRT should be taken for only the shortest time possible because prolonged use is associated with other health risks.