Hormones and Memory: Is It Alzheimer’s or Is It Menopausal Mental-pause?

Is this you? You can’t remember names. Words you want to say seem “stuck” in your brain. Simple words slip your mind. Spelling seems “off.” You forget what you went in the other room to do. You make a “TO DO” list and then forget where you put it! You can’t find your keys, you feel scattered in your thinking, and you can’t seem to focus like you used to.

If so, you aren’t alone. It isn’t in your imagination. And it is not just “stress.” You probably don’t have “attention deficit” either, though that’s what women are often told. It may be simply perimenopause, menopause or long after menopause. Women in all these stages can have memory loss, and the common culprit can be that your brain fuel, estradiol, is on empty!

Meet “Ann” and “Katherine,” two of my patients. Ann was 46 when she sat in my consult room in tears, terrified that she might have Alzheimer’s like her mother did.

“My mother’s Alzheimer’s began in her early fifties. Now I am having memory problems, and deep inside I’m afraid it’s Alzheimer’s beginning for me too. I can’t seem to focus on my To Do lists like I used to, I forget names, I go to say a word I know and suddenly it’s not there and I feel stupid. I can’t seem to add like I used to, and my mind wanders a lot. I’m really frightened. I just don’t want to end up like my mother. I do everything right, I take care of my health, and there’s just nothing in my lifestyle to cause this memory problem. That’s why I’m so worried it is the beginning of Alzheimer’s.”

Katherine, a sixty-one year old writer, was upset by her growing difficulty finding the right words, and trouble keeping her attention focused on getting a story finished on deadline.

She said, “ My thoughts are fragmented, and I get distracted so easily. I used to be one of the most focused people I know. My husband said I could tune out a freight train coming through the room. Now, the slightest thing distracts me. My mind feels like it’s flying in a million directions. I’m worried I’m developing Alzheimer’s. My other doctors think I’m depressed or tell me I’m under stress. But I’ve always had a lot of stress and used to thrive under pressures of a deadline. I’m frightened. This isn’t me.”

Both Ann and Katherine had high FSH levels and low estradiol levels, typical of menopause. Neither woman had considered the memory problems could be related to menopause, and neither woman had experienced the usual menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. Plus, Ann’s doctor had told her she was too young for menopause. I recommended a low dose of an FDA-approved transdermal estradiol for each woman.

A month later, Ann sounded upbeat: My memory is better, I’ve got my mind back! I can think of words and remember names again. The brain fog has lifted.”   Six months later, she reported, “I’m back to my normal self. I feel great. I was so scared I had Alzheimer’s. I am so relieved to know that what was happening was just the hormone changes of menopause and I could get my memory back with estradiol.”

Katherine said “My ability to focus on my writing has dramatically improved. I didn’t realize until I felt better just how much I had been slipping in my concentration. I can keep on track, the problem with words has gone, and I seem to do fine with organizing my thoughts again. I had no idea low estradiol at menopause could wreak such havoc with mental changes. Why doesn’t anyone talk about this?”

Research shows estradiol has multiple memory-enhancing effects on brain neurons, memory-regulating neurotransmitters to preserve our critical thinking, memory, concentration and focus abilities. Here are a few:

  • Promotes growth of new connections (dendrites) between nerve cells
  • Increases density of connections between nerve cells to allow better flow of information along brain pathways
  • Enhances nerve cells ability to take in Nerve Growth Factor
  • Increases production of choline acetyltransferase, an enzyme needed to make the key memory regulating chemical messenger called acetylcholine
  • Improves blood flow and oxygenation to brain cells
  • Acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory to help prevent damage to nerve cells as we age

If you’re experiencing memory problems, I recommend these six action steps:

  1. Reduce use of “memory robbers” like cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, benzodiazepines, narcotic painkillers, anticholinergic medicines (e.g., Detrol and others), some mood stabilizers, some antidepressants)
  2. Read the free booklet on my website, vivelifecenter.com to help you find the right doctor.
  3. Read the free booklet on medical tests on my website vivelifecenter.com. Ask your doctor to check thyroid, orvarian, adrenal hormones, vitamin D, and others I listed.
  4. If your estradiol is low, talk with your doctor about trying an FDA-approved estradiol patch, gel, lotion, spray or pill – start with a low dose and observe what happens to your clarity of thinking and memory.
  5. For more information on the hormone connections in memory, read the chapter on ovarian hormones and your brain in my book, It’s My Ovaries, Stupid!
  6. Consider contacting our office for a Second Opinion Consult by phone to review your symptoms, medical history and laboratory studies to have Dr. Vliet make recommendations for you to pursue with your own physician for treatment to help memory and overall health!

@Elizabeth Lee Vliet MD 2017