The Neuroscience of Menopause: Is It All in Your Head?

The Neuroscience of Menopause: Is It All in Your Head?

Just like each woman experienced unique symptoms of puberty, she will also experience her own unique symptoms of menopause. When you look at how these transitional periods impact our brains, it's clear to see why we might feel so "odd" within ourselves. Suddenly losing the ability to think clearly can be a tremendously frustrating experience, particularly if you lack the ability to explain to others what's going on, or they lack the knowledge to understand. Thankfully there are some answers out there to bring clarity to an otherwise foggy dilemma.

Brain Function Changes With Age

I am highly immersed in the latest neurological research, specifically Alzheimer's and dementia. With each passing day, it is becoming more and more apparent that when it comes to issues of healthy aging, it is critical to remain proactive, not reactive (my husband is probably sick of hearing me bring it up).

Just as we notice external changes as we age (yes, I have been plucking gray hairs lately), our internal health paints a similar picture. Some of these changes are due to genetic and biological factors, whereas others are influenced by environmental, or external factors such as diet, exercise, and exposure to chemicals.

For both men and women, aging causes changes in the vasculature, size, and cognitive function of the brain. The changes that occur are believed to be highly influenced by sex hormones. We women age differently than our male counterparts in terms of our brains -- mainly due to menopausal changes that occur on top of normal aging processes.

Take, for instance, brain shrinkage. This aging effect happens to us and men. However, females’ brains tend to shrink more on average, and also display unique differences in terms of where that shrinkage occurs. This is interesting, especially since women experience greater shrinkage of the parietal lobes and hippocampus which are the regions associated with language, memory, and perception.

It is believed that these neurological differences may contribute to higher rates of Alzheimer's among women. Although researchers think the gene variant known as ApoE-4 may play a role, they are beginning to wonder whether or not it is how the gene interacts with estrogen that results in this phenomenon. Metabolic changes in the brain due to menopause are also a key area of interest.

Menopause and Memory Loss

In terms of the neurological changes associated with menopause, there are a number of possible theories, in which estrogen plays a significant role. We know during menopause that we experience a dramatic decline in estrogen. This is what's believed to cause that dreaded "brain fog" that leaves you feeling tired and fuzzy-minded.

And for those who have ever doubted how they feel inside their minds, simply because others did not understand, brain fog caused by menopause is very real. In fact, based on past studies, up to 60 percent of all women have experienced memory loss during menopause. Brain functions change just as reproductive functions change.

This is the type of information that is so important to women and society, as it helps to normalize our experiences as women. You are not "crazy" or "overreacting.” Your body and your brain are going through physical and neurological changes. You are transitioning into a new period of your life, one that has long been celebrated in many cultures.

Symptoms of Menopause are Unique to Every Woman

Symptoms of menopause range from mood changes to sleep issues, weight gain to night sweats, and everything in between. So, why is it that women have such unique experiences in comparison to one another? We all technically go through the same thing, right?

Well, at first, certain symptoms such as hot flashes and menstrual changes are hormone-related (researchers are now also identifying the potential origins of hot flashes in specific brain regions). Then there are psycho-socio-cultural symptoms, which are largely shaped by each woman's individual environment and character.

Regarding cultural norms, this article is so interesting to me in terms of how women experience menopause. As stated by Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a gynecology, obstetrics and reproductive health professor at Yale Medical School, "In societies where age is more revered and the older woman is the wiser and better woman, menopausal symptoms are significantly less bothersome. Where older is not better, many women equate menopause with old age, and symptoms can be much more devastating."

Long-Term Brain Health

Although this transition is unavoidable, there are things that all women can do to make menopause symptoms more comfortable. The body and mind are interconnected, which is why it is never too early (or too late) to develop healthy habits. How we treat our bodies will in many ways, impact our aging experiences.

One key study, published in the journal Menopause, found that women who live sedentary lives suffer from more severe symptoms of menopause than women who are physically active. Not only were sedentary women 52 percent more likely to be obese (increasing their risk of many health complications), but they were also 21 percent more likely to experience hot flashes and were 17 percent more likely to feel depressed. Exercise doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym. There is data that suggests fun activities like dancing have the potential to reverse signs of aging in the brain.

Regardless of where you are in your journey, it is important to understand that menopause is not a disease or a burden, and aging is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. This stage is much more than a physiological experience. The inner beauty of growing older is something to celebrate, as you become more in tune with your body and mind.

The inspiring American activist, Maggie Kuhn, said it best, "Old age is not a disease -- it is strength and survivorship."

Written by: Krista H

Krista graduated from the University of Guelph where she studied psychology and neuroscience. Still active in her research, she now focuses on all aspects of health — both mental and physical. Krista's specialties are health, nutrition, and neuroscience. She also owns a small business, Among The Pines, which is most certainly her creative outlet!