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Why Midlife Brain Fog Happens

And what you may be able to do about it.

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Loris Lora
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On any given day, I’ll head down to our basement to get something from the storage pantry and by the time I’m at the end of the stairs, I’ve inevitably forgotten what that something was. I stop and stand in the room, dazed and confused, furiously scanning the shelves, trying to recall what I came to retrieve. Sadly, this kind of forgetfulness has grown into a well-worn routine through my midlife years. I can go anywhere in my house with a purpose and a mission, then immediately think to myself, Why am I here, again?

I’ve always assumed my diminishing cognitive functioning was age-related, since I’m keenly aware that everything in my body is slowly deteriorating in its strength and vitality. But little did I know that this condition, known as brain fog, often occurs in around two-thirds of women going through menopause, thanks to our changing hormone levels — which are affecting our brains. Studies show that brain fog is a frequent complaint among women experiencing menopause, along with sleep concerns, depression and hot flashes.

Fortunately, our foggy brains should start to clear once our hormones settle down in our postmenopausal years. A study measuring the cognitive performance of more than 2,000 participants in the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation concluded that “Improvement rebounded to premenopausal levels in postmenopause, suggesting that menopause transition-related cognitive difficulties may be time-limited.” It’s also a relief to learn that our brain fog is rarely linked to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease; signs of those conditions typically present differently and develop at a later age.

As we enter perimenopause, the first hormone to start dropping is progesterone, which can be tied to our mood swings, irritability and blurry thinking. Then come the declining estrogen levels that cause many menopausal symptoms, including poor memory and mental confusion. The link between estrogen and the brain’s functioning is thought to be found in our neurotransmitter system, which sends signals to areas of the brain that operate our memory and information processing.

On top of our hormonal changes, there are other menopausal symptoms that can play a significant role in cognition, such as insomnia, mood swings and hot flashes. Add to this that most middle-aged women are coping with significant life-changing transitions and stressful circumstances, which can add distracting thoughts that impede our memory and concentration. It’s no wonder we’re walking around in a daze, struggling to recall particular things and remember familiar names.

Steps we can take to help with the brain’s ability to operate efficiently.

First and foremost, getting hot flashes and insomnia under control can make a huge difference in the brain’s ability to work well. Since lack of quality sleep impairs our natural brain function, we need to do our best to ensure we’re getting the sleep the brain and the rest of the body need.

· Have a consistent sleep routine and a comfortable bed to sleep in.

· Turn off all devices, and practice meditative relaxation exercises; this can help clear the mind of anxious thoughts and worries before we fall asleep.

· If night sweats are a problem, eliminating caffeine and alcohol can help.

Diet and exercise play a key role in brain function and overall health. According to Harvard Health experts, exercise can improve our memory and thinking skills, as well as our quality of sleep and stress management.

· Make sure to eat nutritious foods that are high in vitamins and minerals that support cognitive function. Some options include vegetables, legumes, whole grains, leafy greens, fatty fish (such as salmon), blueberries, eggs and walnuts.

· Work up to a regular aerobic-exercise routine with moderate intensity for 30 minutes a day. It can take up to six months to reap the results in cognitive functioning, so stick with it and be patient.

Our stress levels can also have a significant impact on our brain’s ability to operate clearly. A 2023 JAMA Network study of 24,448 participants, age 45 and older, found that stress is associated with cognitive impairment.

· Practicing self-care, meditation and relaxation techniques are three effective coping strategies.

· Make time for fun and fulfilling activities outside of work and other daily responsibilities.

· Seeking professional counseling and taking prescription medication might be needed for those who are struggling with chronic stress that interferes with daily living.

We should try to keep our brains active with mentally stimulating activities that focus on concentration, information processing and memory.

Some women suffer so much with brain fog or other debilitating menopausal symptoms that they opt to take hormone replacements, which can help alleviate some problems. But not all women are good candidates for hormones. It’s also important to consult with a health care professional to assess whether any other possible medical conditions might be affecting cognitive difficulties, and to get routine examinations to manage physical and mental health as we age.

Last, researchers find that social integration helps boost memory, and connecting with friends and family can help ease feelings of isolation, shame and depression about what we’re experiencing. Getting together with our girlfriends brings us joy and validation. And we can commiserate about what we can’t remember and all the menopausal symptoms we have to endure.

Do YOU experience midlife brain fog? What do you do about it? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Health