Throughout life, women appear to have better memories than men.
As women reach menopause, they also struggle with forgetfulness and “brain fog,” and for some, this memory depletion continues after menopause. Some researchers have found that women have difficulty with verbal fluency at these times, too.
Nevertheless, women with healthy aging brains continue to have an edge over their male counterparts when it comes to memory function, even in midlife and older age.
Indeed, some studies suggest that, even from childhood, women outperform men in memory tasks. This is especially true of verbal memory. The difference becomes more significant just after puberty, and it continues into adulthood.
Research has suggested that verbal and associative aspects of memory are more likely to be impaired than nonverbal function as people get older.
It also seems that people who experience problems with verbal memory before the age of 50 years are more likely to face additional cognitive impairments after the age of 65 years.
How do hormones affect memory?
Researchers from Boston, MA, have been investigating how the menopause and levels of sex steroids might affect particular aspects of memory.
Neuroactive sex steroid hormones, including estradiol, are believed to affect learning and memory in women, and they may underlie sex differences in learning and memory performance.
Estradiol affects the structure and function of brain regions that relate to memory. As levels fluctuate during the menstrual cycle, verbal working memory performance can change, too.
To find out more, the team decided to investigate memory function as it relates to estradiol levels in early midlife.
They hypothesized that sex differences, hormones, and reproductive status might correlate with changes in memory performance.
The researchers also wanted to know which memory domains are most likely to be impaired in menopausal women and whether the level of memory function in early midlife might predict the future onset of AD, based on family history.
Despite a dip at menopause, women outperform men in memory tests
The participants were 212 men and women aged between 45-55 years.
Fast facts about memory loss
- In 12.6 percent of American households, one or more people have confusion or memory loss
- In 6 percent of households, all adults have confusion or memory loss
- Causes include vitamin B12 deficiency, alcoholism, tumor, infection or blood clots in the brain.
Challenging memory tests were used to assess episodic memory, executive function, and semantic processing. Cognitive testing was used to measure verbal intelligence.
The team compared performance between men and women, and also between women at different stages, before, during, and after menopause.
Results showed that women outperformed men, and that women who were premenopausal or perimenopausal scored better than women who were postmenopausal. Performance was linked to estradiol levels, regardless of chronological age.
As estradiol declines during menopause, women find it harder to learn something for the first time and to retrieve information. However, they continue to maintain and consolidate stored memories effectively. The findings suggest that different parts of the brain are affected.
Previous studies have shown that women with a longer reproductive period, and therefore greater exposure to estrogens, have better immediate and delayed verbal memory in mid- to late-life.
A fall in estradiol levels during menopause has also been found to relate directly to changes in brain activity in the hippocampus, which plays a role in memory function.