Health

This Is My Brain on Menopause

If you’re mad, sad, sweating and sleepless, how can you hope to think straight, much less remember where you put your keys?

My boyfriend and I are talking movies.

Me: “What’s that film where Mira Sorvino plays the stripper?”

Him: “Marisa Tomei?”

Me: “Did I just say 'Mira Sorvino'?”

My 22-year-old daughter and I are on our way to dinner after her ice hockey game.

Me: “You know who played really well tonight?”

Her: “Who?”

Me: “Um, you know, she’s a defenseman.”

Her: “Which one? Hailey?”

Pause.

Her again: “Martin?”

Me: “No, the freshman. Blonde. Number 9.”

Her: “The blonde is number 10, mom.”

Me: “Well, her!”

My 19-year-old son and I are driving together. He pulls up a hip-hop song from his iPhone.

Him: “Mom, name the artist.”

(This is a game we’ve played since he was in middle school. I know I’ve heard this song before. I scan my memory like a surveillance plane flying over an enemy city. Nothing. I spin my mental Rolodex, looking for the card that puts a name to the song I know I know. Nothing. I listen for clues in the voice, in the beats, that might help me solve it like an aural algebra equation. I hack at the dense jungle of my memory. Nothing.)

Me: “Can I have a hint?”

Him: “I played this for you yesterday.”

Me: “Yesterday?”

This is my brain on menopause.

There is nothing endearing or empowering about what has happened to my mind in the two years since my 50th birthday. There is nothing blithely ironic about it, either. I am not a hot-flash mama, a raging harpie or even a wise crone. I am a woman who has made her living with words and made her mark with her ability to think at speed and speak her mind.

And now my brain is full of holes.

It’s not just names. It’s dates and details and verbal dexterity. I pause for the right word, something I’ve done all my life, and the word isn’t there. Sometimes no word is there. My thoughts get lost along the routes of my brain. Once sharp and shiny weapons in my mental arsenal feel wrapped in thick wool.

I’ve only felt this way twice before in my life — after the birth of each of my children. I remember feeling stunningly dumb during the first several months of each of their lives, ashamed of having so little to say to anyone. The world news skittered across my consciousness like oil on a hot frying pan. Us Weekly replaced The New Yorker. I watched “Golden Girls” reruns. I couldn’t wait for pediatrician visits, because he was the only person to whom I had something of value to say.

It was a dark time.

But it passed. The babies got bigger and I climbed out of that trench, chalking it up to sleep deprivation. They learned to sleep through the night and I got my brain back. At least I thought that’s what happened.

Now, at 52 and undisputedly menopausal, I still sleep through the night. What, then, has gummed up so many of my synapses this time around? I go looking for answers in the menopause literature — a mountain range of blogs that block the sun of knowledge with their massif of sisterhood and soothing. No, I don’t want to subscribe to Luminosity. Yes, thanks, I’m drinking soy milk with my coffee. And I’m sure yoga helps — somehow. I don’t want life coaching; I want a diagnosis. A cure.

I dig deeper in search of the science. For years, the baseline has been that the symptoms of menopause — hot flashes, mood swings and insomnia, in particular — cause a woman’s euphemistic “fog.” In other words, if you’re mad, sad, sweating and sleepless, how can you hope to think straight, much less remember where you put your keys?

I locate a nugget of causality in a handful of studies investigating cognitive decline and that superhero reproductive hormone, estrogen. I learn that pregnant and postpartum women experience “verbal memory fluctuations” both during pregnancy and postpartum. Could it be estrogen-related? I spot a study of nearly two thousand women that says a cognitive drop during peri-menopause is not attributable to depression, sleep disturbance or hot flashes. Estrogen? Another study documents “age-independent” menopause effects on verbal function. Estrogen!

Do estrogen receptors in the brain pass along their menopausal deprivation to working memory centers? I find myself dreaming of a little pink pill with an elegant “e” carved into it — the thinking woman’s triumphant response to Viagra. Got pink? You’re damn right I do.

It’s a heady dream, but that’s all it is for now. Meanwhile, if my hormone levels do turn out to be the perpetrators of this cognitive crime, what hope do I have on the other side? A pregnant woman gets her brain back. Have I checked my wit and acuity forever at menopause’s door? There’s a word for how I feel, but I can’t think of it right now.

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