Hot flushes and memory loss during the menopause

When 40 and 50-something women have absent-minded moments, or struggle to find the right word, it’s not unusual for them to blame the menopause.

Hot flushes don't happen just when it's hot.

Scientists have previously noted that women experience a problem retrieving words and recalling anecdotes during the years that mark the end of women's monthly cycle and ability to conceive. 

Now, new research published online in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) has linked hot flushes - also known as vasomotor symptoms - with memory problems. 

Hot flushes refer to a sudden increase of blood flow, often to the face, neck, and chest, that causes the sensation of extreme heat and profuse sweating. These symptoms - known in the US as hot flashes - are one of many signs that the menopause has begun.

Symptoms of the menopause

  • Irregular periods
  • Heavy periods
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Low mood
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Uncomfortable sex
  • Loss of libido
  • Hot flushes
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Putting on weight
  • Hair loss
  • Dull, dry skin
  • Sagging breasts

Scientists have now linked these uncomfortable sensations with changes in brain function during encoding and retrieval of memory, especially in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed the occurrence of physiologic hot flashes and their specific effect on hippocampal and prefrontal cortex function during encoding and recognition conditions of a memory task. 

This research confirmed the link between the hot flush patient and recall using a functional MRI to specifically evaluate real-time changes occurring within the brain during the memory testing.

Previous research relied on patient recall.

Larger studies are needed to confirm the relationship between these vasomotor symptoms and memory loss. 

Dr. Stephanie Faubion, NAMS medical director commented: ”The findings of this preliminary study, although small, support an association between objectively monitored hot flushes and adverse functional changes in the brain that affect memory. Further study is needed to determine whether hot flashes actually cause these brain changes and whether treatment of hot flushes will prevent or normalise them.”

In the meantime, it’s important for women to be aware that treatment for menopause is available. 

Professor Studd of The London PMS & Menopause Clinic says: 'Troublesome hot flushes and severe night sweats that can cause chronic insomnia are characteristic symptoms of the menopause. They may last for years and apart from being socially embarrassing they result in tiredness because of lack of sleep as well as depression. These symptoms can be cured with the correct dose of oestrogen. No other treatment is nearly as effective.'

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