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Dr. Frasat Chaudhry, St. Luke's Hospital

Research questions the link between estrogen loss and memory loss

Many women complain of memory loss as they approach or enter menopause, when women produce less of the hormone estrogen. Neurologists evaluate many women in this stage of life who seek consultation because of concerns about developing Alzheimer's disease. But recent research has questioned the role of estrogen in memory decline.

The importance of estrogen in cognitive function including memory is well-documented. Estrogen receptors are present throughout the brain and especially in what's called the "basal forebrain," which is a major part of the circuitry that regulates memory and learning. On the other hand, there are conflicting reports of estrogen causing inflammation of blood vessels in the brain and increased risk of stroke. It's no wonder there is much confusion regarding hormone replacement therapy for memory loss in menopausal women.

In 2006, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center conducted a study regarding memory loss and menopause. They concluded the menopausal women in the study were not having true memory problems; they were actually experiencing difficulties learning new information. When administered neuropsychological tests, none of the women in the study showed an actual inability to learn new information. However, most expressed depression, anxiety and feelings of being "spread too thin," which led them to feel like they were losing memory.

Thus, while estrogen is heavily concentrated in the brain, the researchers found that the decline in levels did not lead to memory loss. Currently, there is no clinical trial examining whether taking estrogen would help women with memory problems or prevent Alzheimer's disease. This should ease the concerns of many women who are juggling stressful jobs and taking care of their families while going through

Women should discuss symptoms of depression and anxiety with their doctors and mutually agree on treatment such as undergoing counseling and taking antidepressants. Lifestyle changes including stress management, increasing physical activity and carving out "me time" will also contribute to a feeling of overall well-being. These changes will likely decrease perceived memory issues, and, at the very least, lead to better ways to cope with the changes women experience during menopause.

Dr. Frasat Chaudhry is a board-certified neurologist at the Brain and Spine Center at
St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-878-2888 or visit her Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 5, 2011.