So, I had a frightening experience the other day. I was sitting in a small boardroom, gray walls, no windows except for a dark glass (two-way mirror) with about nine other strangers: 50 to 70 yrs. old. We were all corralled for a focus group to get our opinions and experiences, and in the middle of sharing my perspective in response to a particular question – my mind went blank. Completely. Nada. I’d lost my train of thought before, in fact many times, but this was different. I just couldn’t connect the dots, I couldn’t find the last word that I left off that may trigger a retrace-the-steps-memory. The facilitator left me and moved on to another participant. Needless to say, I was embarrassed. She came back to me, and again the same thing happened.
The irony: the focus group was about those who were related to or helping friends or family suffering from dementia and Alzheimer. You can fully appreciate my instant anxiety and embarrassment. I just knew the rest of the group was diagnosing me with early onset dementia and believe me I was right in there with them. I was scared. I tried to brush it off for the next hour, continuing to answer questions but 90 percent of my thoughts and feelings were drowning in a sea of heightened emotions.
Losing my train of thought as I said was nothing new, but not being able to reconnect – that had never happened before. Usually there is some sort of activity or brain wave but there was radio silence. I knew that a woman of my age often has memory challenges – it’s normal with the hormone changes. Nothing to fear; but fear drove me to call my cousin as soon as I left. She shared a similar experience and said she noticed forgetfulness by many of our aunts and uncles – but there was no history of dementia or current diagnosis in the family.
It calmed me somewhat, but having watched a Dr. Oz segment on dementia, I knew a little something about prevention and decided that I would inject the following into my lifestyle – more social contact and be actively and consciously present and mindful always. I’m an entrepreneur, freelance writer and editor and have worked from home for almost 10 years – no regular daily professional contact with the outside world except for early morning workout’s at the gym five or six days per week. It has become my social outlet and similar to the 80’s sitcom “Cheers”, where everyone knows your name; the interactions are usually filled with quick catch-ups and a whole lot of humor but no big dialogues to speak of. I’m single; no kids. I decided that I would make sure to engage in some networking or social activity once or twice a week. Cause honestly after so many years of working in seclusion my communication skills have waned to say the least – my witty sense of humor has diminished – instead of being quick, the quick comeback shows itself an hour or days after a conversation. My vocabulary, instead of the more sophisticated varied versions found in a Thesaurus, what comes to mind are the basic words learned as a three year old and those are the ones that find their way into my discussions – and that’s after my brain does a run through of options (like an old school Rolodex) that are nowhere to be found. Don’t get me wrong I’m no preeminent wordsmith and in fact I’m not one who tries to impress by using “big” words. But you know what they say; if you don’t use it you lose it. Furthermore, before you think I don’t have a life I do have my mother, family and friends that I talk to and see on a regular basis.
That very night, I decided I was going to be more conscious and present in my thoughts; as opposed to the easily distracted, multi-tasking mind that has constant useless chatter going on or the disengaged la-dee-da go through the motions state of being.
It worked, I was mindful, present, which on a spiritual level is where you should be. That’s another article. In any case, still I made an appointment to see my doctor. I explained to her what happened, and she brought out the MoCA (Montreal Cognitive Assessment) test a tool for evaluating cognitive disabilities – 30 questions that help to determine dementia by assessing your orientation, short-term memory, executive functions/visuospatial ability, language, abstraction and attention. You are scored out of 30 and a final mark of 26 or more means you are considered normal. My score came out to 28 or 29. I can’t remember which one exactly, but my lack of memory has nothing to do with dementia – yep, I can giggle about it now! Needless to say – relief washed over me – early onset dementia isn’t the problem.
She also broke down my concerns. As for vocabulary – as an editor and writer for the general public, you are trained to write so that someone at a grade three level can understand – clear, succinct and simple. An aha moment! Whew! She prescribed watching Ted Talks regularly to keep my head in the game and agreed with my plan to increase my social interaction. Also, sometimes our brains just go on autopilot, not her exact words but mine. And of course, my changing hormones are probably a contributing factor.
So once I knew that it wasn’t early onset dementia, I needed to learn more about this memory loss and brain fog that women experience when they become perimenopausal. Now it’s no longer something that happens to other women – it’s happening to me. I’ve heard it for years from my mother, my aunts and now girlfriends.
Firstly, the experts do not claim to know exactly why menopause affects us cognitively, but have deduced that it may be related to falling levels of estrogen which affects parts of the brain that influence memory, attention and emotions. However what they know for sure is that it’s a normal part of our transition and aging as women. Those words alone are comforting. In fact, Nada Stotland, MD,MPH professor of psychiatry at Rush University in Chicago, states, “menopause is a normal healthy stage in life”.
So what is cognitive function?
According to the https://www.neuronup.com, “Cognitive functions are those mental processes that lead to the acquisition of knowledge and allow us to carry out our daily tasks. They allow the subject to have an active role in the processes of receiving, choosing, transforming, storing, processing and retrieval of information, allowing the subject to navigate the world around him.”
Basically it allows us to reason, to pay attention, remember, and process information so that we can interact with our environment independently and fully engaged.
According to a study published in the journal Menopause, the first year after your last period is when memory problems are more acute. So there you go, it gets better.
Managing the change
The effects linked to perimenopause and menopause – the hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia and brain fog – are all normal healthy parts of the process. Of course they cause fatigue and discomfort but I think half the battle is knowing for sure what is causing the irritability, night sweats and then accepting it, because not accepting it and being negative just makes it worse than it is. I know it ain’t easy! Sleep deprivation is one of the worst symptoms because it affects all areas of our lives. Our daily routines and lifestyles are affected in different ways and can be unpredictable. Sitting in a meeting or going on a date where all of a sudden you have beads of sweat forming on your forehead and dripping like you just came out of the shower and trying to act normal like it’s not really happening – well that’s embarrassing. But is it really? What if we just own it? Be matter of fact about it … because it is simply – a matter of fact.
So now I know, with the combination of all the symptoms – hot flashes, night sweats, memory problems, insomnia – that I’m not in the stages of dementia or any other illness or disease but that I’m a woman going through a healthy phase of life.
How do I manage all these inconvenient annoyances without showing my Tasmanian Devil? Meaning, looking fierce from the lack of sleep and hot flashes, and although not looking for a fight will quickly show my clenched teeth, screeching at the slightest hint of a side eye. Maybe, just maybe – I see you about to roll your eyes – I frame it as a colorful stage of life; interesting, dynamic, eventful, unpredictable, the experiences on which laughs and giggles can be had in the comfort of other women also going through it. Plus, if God blesses me to reach the rocking chair stage of life and to have the benefit of consoling, regaling younger women on my embarrassing, treacherous and gut laughing stories – they will know I made it through … to tell the tale. And so will they.
The choice on how to cope is personal, but there is definitely one thing that I’ve observed of those at this stage: those who manage their stress levels have less symptoms. Daily exercise has been my go-to option for stress management for about 30 years. The only other thing, than the memory that I’ve noticed are the hot flashes and I take Maca root, a natural alternative – and so far so good, it’s worked wonderfully.
There are many options, opinions and advice from traditional western to Chinese medicine and alternative practices to old wives tales. I’m sure in all that, there is an approach that will work perfectly for me (and you). I will just have to take the time to figure out what works for me step by step.