Healthbeat Report: Changing Bodies, Changing Brains

May 17, 2012 8:31:51 PM PDT
Feeling sluggish or having trouble concentrating? Science is finally starting to catch up with what millions of women have known for a long time -- that their changing bodies are having an effect on brainpower.

Phyllis Lanoff has a lot on her plate. As a restaurant manager her job can be stressful. But she juggles it all, along with some wicked hot flashes. The vibrant 53-year-old says she never expected the change of life to hit her so young. Symptoms started in her early 40s.

"Absolutely no clue, didn't know what it was. Thought I didn't feel good for a while," she said.

She's not alone. Many women are surprised when the signs of menopause begin to kick in. So when Lanoff found out about an estrogen and hot flash study at the University of Illinois at Chicago she wanted in.

Researchers suspect that estrogen helps minimize hot flashes and that in turn lessens the surge of a stress hormone called cortisol, which can impact part of the brain.

"So maybe it is through this cortisol surge that hot flashes are associated with poor memory functioning," said Pauline Maki, Ph.D., researcher, University of Illinois Hospital.

Researchers are trying to get a better understanding of the possible link between hormones and mental functioning. But it's a complicated picture as different studies come to different conclusions.

And this isn't just about the body aging. Researchers are studying younger women on oral contraception containing the hormones estrogen and progestin.

One study shows women on the pill remembered things differently. For example, it made them worse at recalling detail but better at remembering the order in which things happen. Scientists point out the pill doesn't change the brain but temporarily alters the type of information women retain.

UIC is looking at the pill and memory.

"When they were on their active pills their memory was better compared to when they did their test on their dummy pills," said Dr. Maki.

Maki is a memory and brain functioning expert and heading up many of the hormone studies at UIC. She was part of the team that recently confirmed memory "brain fog" during menopause might be real. That research did not look for a link between memory deficits and hormone levels. Maki is now working on that.

"That area which is active when we are learning words was more active in the women on hormones," said Dr. Maki. "So we think that this is a sign that hormone therapy can be beneficial for the areas of the brain that help us to learn and remember. "

Maki stresses women should not start taking hormone therapy at this point just to benefit memory or mood. She says these studies may eventually help doctors better individualize hormone therapy.

The research is also aimed at validating there is substance to a woman's complaints and reassurance that these changes, while disturbing, are also normal.

Phyllis Lanoff is not taking estrogen right now but does feel some relief knowing her hot flashes are part of her body's natural course.

"I'm a little bit of a natural freak. I try to handle things myself," she said.

The pluses and minuses of hormone therapy are still being debated by patients and physicians. But most doctors agree that women should start thinking about menopause long before it begins. Addressing some of the changes with healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise and diet have been shown to also help lessen side effects.

For more information about UIC's research, visit http://ccm.psych.uic.edu/Rise.


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