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Published on: May 7, 2012
by Boston Globe:
It starts with a few forgotten names, missed appointments, and words lost on the tip of your tongue. Is it lack of sleep, our crazy lives, or something more ominous?
Most people experience memory losses as they slip past their mid-30s and beyond. Memory mistakes ignored earlier in life suddenly seem worrisome, particularly for women — or at least women tend to talk about their anxiety more than men.
Researchers have long dismissed these common complaints as “just” signs of aging, and too minor to merit serious study. But scientists — many of them female — are starting to take the phenomenon of middle-age memory loss more seriously. They are focusing their research around menopause, which usually occurs when a woman is in her late 40s or early 50s.
A lot of the new research is reassuring.
Although memory does decline during the early part of menopause, it bounces back later in most women, according to findings from the Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study, which began following 500 women in the early 1990s.
Age-related decline may also be generally slower than previously thought, according to a Swedish review of previous research published last month in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. It found that roughly half of men and women avoid significant mental decline until their 60s, and in about 15 percent, the brain stays well-functioning into their 80s.
Memory loss is so mild for most people in their 40s and 50s that scientists generally have had a hard time even detecting a change. Still, many women report being alarmed by what they perceive as a decline.
“There’s something going on, but whatever it is seems to be pretty small for most women,” said Dr. Victor Henderson, a professor of neurological sciences at Stanford University.
“That’s not to minimize what women are experiencing,” he said. “As people get older, memory and cognition do change. In most instances, it’s for the worse.”
Henderson does have one piece of more encouraging news: Midlife memory loss doesn’t seem to predict Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia later in life.
“I don’t see evidence that it’s a major problem in terms of portending something ominous,” Henderson said.
There is, however, a clear connection between memory and the hormone estrogen, which declines during menopause, said Dr. Pauline Maki, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“If we take a woman’s ovaries out, her verbal memory [the memory for words and language] will decline. If we replace the estrogen, verbal memory returns to baseline,” said Maki, also a board member of the North American Menopause Society.
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