If you spent some time this morning searching in vain for your car keys, or tried to recall ‘that movie’ starring ‘what’s her name?’ you might be wondering if you are losing your memory. Many women complain of memory loss or lapses during menopause; the fear sets in that dementia or Alzheimer’s is just around the corner. Small memory lapses do not automatically mean that you are losing your mind. Let’s take a look at some of the myths surrounding memory loss to better understand what is happening.
Types of memory
All of us have parts of the brain that process and store the information we learn. Without getting too wrapped up in medical terminology and anatomy we can understand the basics of how the brain works. The following refers to a normal healthy brain.
Short term memory is the information you encounter and gather every day. It can be a simple matter such as trying to remember what your friend just told you during a conversation. The pre-frontal lobe is the part of the brain that stores this information long enough for us to use it. Think of students who desperately spend hours cramming for exams.
Long term memory is where the short term information is placed into an area of the brain that will later recall that information. This part of the brain is called the hippocampus and is where you go to retrieve names, phone numbers, and just about anything else you have learned over the course of your lifetime.
Despite what you might think, the brain does not lose information; it stays stored away in the hippocampus. The methods we use to recall information are what prompt us to remember the information. Getting older does not necessarily mean you cannot remember, but you may recall information differently than you did in the past.
Myth: I can’t find my keys so it must be dementia.
Everyone will lose their keys at some point – notice how during times of stress it seems to become more difficult to find them and we berate ourselves for being so forgetful. Likewise when trying to remember a former classmate's name or the name of the movie star in last year’s blockbuster. There is a difference however in not knowing where your keys are and not remembering what the keys are used for.
Myth: I forgot my old roommate's name; must be dementia
Over your lifetime, you will acquire a great deal of knowledge and will use that knowledge for different purposes. For example, while you train your brain to think critically as a university student, much of the information you absorbed in school seems to be forgotten. But as a woman with other concerns such as raising children or your career, much of what you read about Marx or Betty Friedan just does not have the same relevance that it did when studying for exams or writing essays.
Think of how in high school it was so important to know the words to every song by your favorite band plus the names of those band members. Not being able to recall the entire b-side of their third album is not a cause for panic. As a teenager you had the luxury of devoting hours to learning about musicians; now you have other matters that require you immediate attention. The information is still there, but you are not recalling it as readily as you once did.
Myth: Menopause did this to me!
Unfortunately, memory is still not fully understood. In the past, doctors commonly believed that less estrogen was to blame for women’s memory loss during menopause. Today that opinion is shifting after some new evidence that hormone replacement therapy does not do much to reverse any memory loss. Now doctors believe that a number of factors may be involved, including stress (which occurs during menopause), poor nutrition, not exercising the brain, and our obsession with multi-tasking. We scatter our attention in so many places that it becomes more difficult to get the information we take in to ‘stick’ in our memories. Our brains, just like us, have to work much more quickly than in the past.
Technology has been a tremendous help in our busy modern lives. But some of the tasks we once performed by using our old-fashioned memory have gone by the wayside. Hands up everyone who knows their daughter’s phone number is 3 on speed-dial, or think of the times you rely on spell-check instead of those old spelling drills. Plus all those passwords and codes you have to get into your computer, your ATM, and just about everything else. Our brains are absorbing information in ways that psychiatry has not been able to fully catch up with yet.
If you notice that your memory is not what it used to be, ask yourself if it is possible the things you once considered so important to know do not carry the same value today. You might also discover that unlike your younger days when you gathered lots of bits of information to use in the short term (like the cramming example) your brain is more developed to think in the long term and see the bigger picture.
If you do think that you are experience memory loss, talk to your doctor about your concerns and report any unusual patterns you have noticed in your ability to remember. Menopause is not the path to dementia but another of those adjustments your body is making during this time of change.
Menopause, Your Doctor, and You