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London - Women of a certain age who feel their memory is letting them down may not be imagining it.
It is a sign of the menopause, say researchers.
A study has confirmed that around the time of the change many women struggle with memory and other brain skills.
Fluctuating levels of female hormones are the likely cause of the problem, which affects women most badly during the first year of the menopause.
But the good news is it is not linked to depression or sleep problems and the effects are unlikely to be permanent.
Dr Miriam Weber, a neuropsychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Centre, who led the study, said the findings would strike a chord with millions of women going through the menopause.
Memory difficulties are one of the most common symptoms for women in their late 40s and early 50s, she said, a transition stage known as perimenopausal.
She said: “This study suggests that these problems not only exist but become most evident in the women in the first year following their final menstrual period.”
The average age that women in Britain start the menopause is 50. They develop symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, depression, irritability and loss of concentration.
A study published in the journal Menopause looked at 117 women who were close to the menopause or had just gone through it.
The women were given a series of tests on verbal memory, working memory, attention and information processing.
The tests replicate daily tasks such as staying focused on something for a period of time, learning a phone number, and making a mental list of groceries and recalling them in the supermarket.
The researchers found that women in the early stage of post-menopause performed worse on measures of verbal learning, verbal memory and fine motor skills than women just before going through the menopause or two years into it.
The researchers also found symptoms such as sleep difficulties, depression and anxiety did not predict memory problems.
Dr Weber said: ‘While absolute hormone levels could not be linked with cognitive function, it is possible that the fluctuations that occur during this time could play a role in the memory problems that many women experience.’
Parts of the brain most dependent on oestrogen, which diminishes during the menopause, are important for verbal memory and processing speed, said Dr Weber.
Two years ago, at the age of 47, Deborah Shelton noticed her short-term memory wasn’t as good as it used to be.
It happened at the same time as she noticed changes in her menstrual cycle and hormones – making her more emotional and tearful.
The mother of two from Southampton, now 49, said: “I find it harder to automatically recall things like I used to. When I went food shopping with my daughter the other day, we got back to the car and I could have sworn I forgot to buy any bread.
“My daughter had to tell me, ‘no mom, you did buy it’ - I thought I was going mad, I couldn’t remember picking it up!”.
Dr Weber added: “The most important thing that women need to be reassured of is that these problems, while frustrating, are normal and, in all likelihood, temporary.”
Dr John Stevenson, of Royal Brompton Hospital in London, said: “When women discover it’s probably a symptom of the menopause, they are usually very relieved as they feared they might be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.” - Daily Mail