In my last blog post I talked about how low mood, anxiety, and rigid thinking can creep into our lives around menopause and the years following. Many women in later mid-life also complain about problems with memory loss. If you are feeling like your brain is not as sharp as it once was you are not alone; when surveyed, the majority of women over 50 reported feeling like their memory and concentration had gotten worse in mid-life.
It’s normal to worry that problems remembering or issues with concentration might be the early signs of cognitive decline, or God forbid, dementia. The good news is that your risk for dementia is relatively low in later mid-life and the risk of developing dementia doesn’t start to increase increase until you are older than 65.
Although some researchers suggest that dropping estrogen levels may be responsible for cognitive problems in mid-life women, it doesn’t appear that memory issues and the physiology of peri and post-menopause are clearly linked. It seems that when you are experiencing problems with memory and concentration, your issues are more likely to be a result of other factors that are present in your life and health.
Anxiety, low mood, waking at night, stress, and perceived problems with health have all been indicated as the more likely culprits in problems with concentration and memory function. Also, women who drink alcohol have been shown to have increased memory and concentration problems, and it seems that the more you drink, the more severe the problems. Conversely, being employed and exercising regularly seem to provide a protective effect for concentration but not for forgetfulness.
Overall it appears that most cognitive problems might be a result of things like lifestyle, anxiety, low mood, problems with sleep, and the other multiple stressors at mid-life, rather than something more sinister. It also seems that many of these issues feed one another (e.g., problems with sleep can lead to anxiety and anxiety can lead to memory issues).
How can we get a handle on this complex bundle of stressors, protect our brain health, and make sure that our world doesn’t become too small as we get older? Here are some recommendations from the research:
1. Get regular exercise. I know, you’re probably thinking, “Kate, you are like a broken record with the way that you promote exercise.” You’re right. You know why? Because being regularly active is the single most important prevention and treatment tool that you can use from this point forward. Period. We know that people who exercise not only have lower risk for many chronic diseases, they also have better brain health in aging. Exercise also helps with the management of symptoms of anxiety.
2. Quit smoking. Please, please, please, if you are still smoking, stop. I know that you don’t need me to preach, but trust me, the Age Sisters are behind you on this one.
3. Keep your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol in check. These things may seem obvious, but many women are still not monitoring these important measurements. Know your numbers and try to keep them regulated with the help of your doctor.
4. Throw out the supplements and eat a healthy diet. Currently there is no scientific evidence that any type of supplement or vitamin pill has any impact on improving cognitive function. Researchers do recommend maintaining an overall healthy diet for better brain health.
I know it’s difficult to know exactly what “healthy diet” means. I have written about healthy eating several times on the Age Sister blog site, but next week I will be writing about one of the only diets that is supported by research. Come on back to have a read.
5. Moderate alcohol. Here I go, being a fun-sponge again, but this one is important. What does moderate drinking mean exactly? According to “safe-drinking” guidelines in most developed countries, women should have no more than two drinks on most days (five ounces of wine, one and half ounces of liquor, or one 12-ounce beer), and no more than 10 drinks per week. And no, you can’t save those credits up.
6. Make better sleep a mission. Easier said than done, right? I will be writing in an upcoming post about the best ways to try to improve your sleep. Stay tuned.
7. See your doctor. If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, low mood, or memory loss, make sure you see your doctor to rule out an underlying condition and to get any possible treatment.
8. Practice relaxation: Implementing a regular program of relaxation practice improves your “relaxation muscle”. This means if you practice relaxation strategies every day, you will become better at relaxing on command. Start with 10 minutes a day.
9. Say yes. Even if what you’re being asked scares you or makes you uncomfortable, do it anyway. Have you ever seen that bad-ass female Jedi (Rey) in Star Wars? She’s my visual when I want to shrink into my comfort zone. Grab yourself a lightsabre whenever necessary.
10. Become relentlessly self-compassionate. Remember the anxiety and rigid thinking I talked about in the last post? We need to give ourselves permission for feeling crappy, not loving every moment of our experience, and not always being at our best.
Think about how you would talk to your best friend who revealed that she was not feeling as confident as she used to be – remember to use those kind words for yourself.
11. Let go wherever possible. Think about the outcome rather than the process. Does it really matter what route you drive if get to your destination? Letting go of the small stuff frees you up to be more flexible in your thinking and to try new things.
Caring for an aging brain and body doesn’t require supplements and creams – it requires movement, sleep, good food, friends, and self-care. All of the things that make your body healthier, typically also have the same effect on your brain.
Your sister in health,
Keep up to date on everything healthy aging for women. By signing up, you'll get regular alerts on new blog posts and other great content.