Hot flashes and memory loss; is there a connection? For many women, these two menopausal symptoms coexist and make for some difficult years. But is there really a cause and effect relationship between hot flashes and memory loss? At the 13th World Congress of Menopause held in 2011, researchers produced new findings that demonstrate how hot flashes can influence memory function.
In the past, there was little evidence to support this hypothesis. But emerging studies show that there just may be more to the story. After years of being told that menopause was ‘all in their heads’ women are learning that menopause is a physical condition that affects many health areas.
A recent laboratory review indicates that moderate to severe hot flashes do play a role in memory loss. The crucial piece of the puzzle involves objectively measured hot flashes rather than subjectively reported hot flashes.
Objective vs. subjective hot flashes
Objective hot flashes are measured using skin conductance monitors, which confirm actual physical hot flashes. Subjective hot flashes on the other hand are those simply reported by women. The problem with subjective hot flash reporting is that the numbers tend to be inaccurate; many women either overestimate or even underestimate the number and frequency of their hot flashes.
As a telling point, this study revealed that women tended to report only 40% of the actual number of hot flashes they experienced. Menopausal women are actually coping with more hot flashes than they think. This means those numerous objective hot flashes may be causing more than just general discomfort.
Objective hot flashes and memory loss
Objective or measured hot flashes point to possible memory dysfunction, or those senior moments. The links between the two are still not entirely clear, but preliminary findings show that after a hot flash, the increase of cortisol in the body affects the part of the brain called the anterior cingulated cortex.
For the rest of us, this is the part of our brains responsible for functions such as preparing for tasks, detecting errors after completing one of those tasks, and regulating emotions. The increased cortisol levels throw these normal functions off, resulting in what we call fuzzy thinking or difficulty concentrating or processing information.
Researchers in this study measured brain function patterns before and after both subjectively and objectively reported hot flashes. Using magnetic resonance imaging (an MRI), scientists noticed increased cortisol levels and the corresponding activity in the anterior cingulated cortex.
Interestingly, the link was much stronger between memory loss and objectively measured hot flashes compared to subjectively reported hot flashes. In other words, memory loss due to hot flashes is a physiological event in the body rather than a psychological event in the brain alone.
At last, scientific research is helping doctors understand what patients have been trying to say for years. Menopause is not just a form of hysteria or something in our heads. Menopause is a complex transitional phase that includes physical effects in the body. With a better understanding of how these physical and psychological reactions occur in the body, healthcare providers will be better equipped to help women deal with their menopause symptoms and have a better understanding of the aging process.
“The connection between hot flushes and memory dysfunction in midlife women” Maki, Pauline (US) – University of Illinois at Chicago as presented at the 13th World Congress on Menopause, Rome, Italy 2011.
Menopause, Your Doctor, and You is a great tool to record all your health information for your next doctor’s appointment!