The question I hear most often from women going through perimenopause and menopause is: "What's happening to me? I can't remember a thing. I've never had to make a list or carry a daily planner before. Now, not only do I need them, I can't remember where I put them."
Memory, that wonderful ability to recall names, words, where you put things and what to do next, often starts to fade during the perimenopause stage of life. Frustrating experiences like losing your car keys or forgetting where you parked your car become daily occurrences. You may feel so distracted you can't remember why you walked into a room or whose number you just dialed on the phone. Your children complain that you're not listening to them. You may even forget that you have children!
Memory researcher Dr. Scott Small would like to reassure you that you're not losing your wits. Visit him in his lab at Columbia University's Medical Center, tell him how the last time you went to a party, you couldn't put names to faces, how telephone numbers slip your mind, and he'll walk to his blackboard, pick up a piece of chalk and draw two lines. One, he will tell you, represents age. The other is memory. "As age goes up, memory goes down," he says. "Memory decline occurs in everyone."
Acceptance is the first step to peace of mind. Yes, life changes and so does your body. You now know that when you reach your 40s or 50s you may experience difficulty recalling things that once came easily. As a woman, you take pride in doing everything well and you want to continue at the same high level. Next, remember you are not alone in this process.
Take comfort in knowing you are a member of a community of millions of women who are dealing with the same internal challenges. Know too, that some days will be better than others in the memory department. When I teach seminars for women who are going through menopause, there are some days when I am right on target – my thoughts flow into words effortlessly, and I sail through my presentation without skipping a beat. Other days, I can't think of the words to save my soul. So I let myself off the hook by giving permission to the women sitting in front to finish my sentences for me. They love it, especially when they can think of the word and I can't.
The next step is to explore the many choices available to help you deal with the symptoms.
Give Your Brain A Boost
Researchers are continuing to uncover, through various studies, two vital components to a healthy aging brain: regular consistent aerobic exercise and nutrition.
In a paper published last spring by a team led by Fred Gage, a neuroscientist, and Richard Sloan, a psychologist at Columbia University, revealed that after pounding the treadmill for an hour four times a week for 12 weeks, a group of previously inactive men and women, ages 21 to 45, showed substantial increases in cerebral blood volume (CBV). An increase in cerebral blood volume means that there is an increase in cells and where there are more cells, there are more blood vessels. In addition these dedicated exercisers did better on a slew of memory tests.
Cerebral blood volume is not the only thing responsible for this brain-boosting. Also at work is the fact that exercise, more importantly aerobic exercise, increases what's known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) a protein that stimulates the birth of new brain cells and then helps them differentiate and connect. BDNF also enhances neural plasticity, the process by which the brain changes in response to learning. In diseases like Alzheimer's, depression,
Parkinson's and dementia, BDNF levels are low. In people who exercise, BDNF levels rise.
But physical activity isn't all there is to improving your memory. There's also what you eat. Take blueberries for example. According to Jim Joseph, a neuroscientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Boston, blueberries seem to have nearly magical powers: they zap free radicals (highly reactive atoms that can damage tissue), reverse aging, enhance cognition and – and this is the kicker – cause new neurons to grow (if you're a rat).
None of these insights, of course, make your sputtering memory less frustrating. When you've misplaced your keys for the third time this month, it does you little good to be reminded that it all may be too little exercise and too few blueberries. Still figuring out how memory works is the most important step in figuring out how it can be fixed. When you can make some of the fixes yourself, the news is even better.
So, put on your walking shoes and head for the grocery store, pick up some blueberries and remember as Martha Stewart would say: "this is a good thing."