Health + Wellness

Do Hormonal Changes Affect How the Brain Works?

hormonal changes

Recently, a friend was waxing philosophical about the luck of someone who had won the lottery. Suddenly, she stopped talking and furrowed her brow as she groped for the word she was looking for.

“Random,” I offered.

“Yes! That’s it!” she declared. After pausing again, she suggested that menopausal women would benefit from traveling in pairs just so they could finish each other’s sentences.

If you’re going through menopause — defined as not having menstruated for a year — you may have frequent moments when the word you’re searching for escapes you. Or you may walk into a nearby room to do something, only to realize you have no idea what it was you intended to do.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for women to experience a whole list of puzzling memory and reasoning problems around the same time they’re going through menopause. So if you’re in menopause and worried about fuzzy thinking, groping for words, or feeling forgetful, don’t despair. You’re not alone, and there are ways to manage those troublesome mental blips.

RELATED: Menopause: How it Can Affect the Body

Do hormonal changes affect how the brain works?

Research shows that the female sex hormone, estrogen, plays a key role in brain function. An article in the journal Neurology describes estrogen as “a key element in the work of the brain [that] helps direct blood to parts of the brain that are more active.”

That hormone declines during menopause, but that doesn’t mean your brain function will decline along with it. According to a six-year study of women who were still menstruating, perimenopausal, or postmenopausal, most of the women improved their test scores of brain function over time. That is, even women with declining estrogen were able to improve brain function.

One of the ways that researchers have tried to document how the downward shift in estrogen production affects memory is by studying women who’ve experienced sudden menopause as a result of the surgical removal of their ovaries. Studies have associated subsequent memory problems with a loss of estrogen, but it’s not really clear how strong that link is.

In one study, for example, women’s memory and reasoning skills were tested before and after they had their ovaries surgically removed. On tests of their short- and long-term memory and logical reasoning skills, study participants who were not taking hormones after surgery had lower scores than women who underwent the same surgery but were treated with hormones.

But reviewing this study, surgeon and breast cancer expert Susan Love, MD, writes that the study subjects were tested only three months after surgery — too short a time for the results to be conclusive. And, she adds, “We don’t know if the effect of hormones on someone thrown abruptly into menopause is the same as on someone who has a natural, more gradual menopause.”

Although estrogen produced by our bodies helps the brain function, there’s no clinical evidence to

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