Forgetful? Befuddled? Blame the Pink Fog

Forgetful Befuddled Blame the Pink Fog: You read the same book twice and don’t realise. You hunt for your phone as you chat on it. Don’t panic, you’ve just hit a certain age!

Sue Carpenter

PUBLISHED:

22:07 GMT, 1 August 2012

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UPDATED:

06:57 GMT, 2 August 2012

You’re chatting to your daughter, rummaging in your handbag and fretting that you’ve left your mobile phone behind, when she points out: ‘Mum, you’re speaking to me on it!’

Reading a book, somewhere around page 145, you feel a flicker of recognition — then you realise it’s the same book you read with your book club only last year.

You’re out and you call a friend to say you’ll drop in to see her — then you drive straight home.
Sound familiar Well rest assured, it’s not just you, it’s me too — and all of my friends. We forget what we’re saying halfway through a sentence, we cannot grasp the right word, we blunder along in a swirling fog.

Beginning menopause has been linked to problems of memory loss

Beginning menopause has been linked to problems of memory loss

We can’t be suffering from senile dementia, since we’re only in our 40s and 50s. So what’s wrong with us

‘It’s called the pink fog,’ a mother at my daughter’s school declared authoritatively the other day.
What she meant was the particular kind of muddling and forgetfulness suffered by women like us in middle age. It’s something my friend Angela French, a 46-year-old archaeologist from Hampshire, would readily own up to.

‘I made soup for lunch this morning then forgot and made a Spanish omelette instead,’ she tells me. ‘The soup was there all along in a pan on the kitchen worktop.’

Carol Bryant, a 57-year-old IT specialist from West London, recently read a review of a film she liked the sound of, and suggested to her partner that they should go and see it. ‘He looked at me in astonishment and said we’d been to watch it two weeks ago, and I’d really liked it!’

As for me, I used to enjoy lively, quickfire conversation. Now, when I try to tell an anecdote or describe a recent event, it feels as if I’m trying to recount a dream — there’s a misty impression swimming around the recesses of my mind but I can’t grasp hold of enough detail to tell the story.

Not only do I jumble words I’m saying (the other day, ‘I’ve already been to the park,’ kept coming out as, ‘I’ve ordinary been to the park’) but I muddle up those I’m reading, too. Last week I was touched by the considerate motorway sign ‘Don’t Panic While Driving’ — only to see another and realise it was ‘Don’t Phone While Driving’.

My frustration at being unable to express myself or recall funny anecdotes has driven me to spend hours online researching early-onset Alzheimer’s (a symptom of which, it turns out, is a feeling of frustration at the loss of one’s marbles).

My frustration at being unable to
express myself or recall funny anecdotes has driven me to spend hours
online researching early-onset Alzheimer’s (a symptom of which, it turns
out, is a feeling of frustration at the loss of one’s marbles)

In a moment of desperation I even emailed an American herbal company peddling a concoction called Alzheimer’s Mender. They wrote back, ‘If your memory loss is due to menopause, we suggest you try Endocrine Mender.’ This is another herbal cocktail, supposedly designed to rebalance your hormone system as you go through the change.

Could my mental fuzziness really be due to the menopause — or even the peri-menopause (the bit before, which can start as early as your late 30s)

A U.S. study published earlier this year adds weight to this theory. It analysed 75 women aged 40 to 60 who were beginning the menopause, and put them through numerous tests before comparing the results to the subject’s own reports of memory problems. It found that these women had particular trouble with two areas — maintaining their focus, especially on complex or tedious tasks, and retaining snippets of new information such as a phone number or a shopping list for more than a few minutes.

They also had difficulty in mentally manipulating new information, such as calculating the amount of a tip. However, the study found little evidence of problems with what’s called verbal memory — the ability to remember names of places and things — or short-term memory, such as remembering to buy a grocery item later in the day. Clearly they asked the wrong women.

Author JK Rowling is known to have written some of the Harry Potter books in coffee shops

Author JK Rowling is known to have written some of the Harry Potter books in coffee shops

Recently, I arranged to take my daughter to look at a secondary school to which I’m thinking of sending her. I was rather looking forward to going, and noted the underlined and exclamation-marked appointment in my diary several times during the week.

On the morning I was due to go, and feeling bored with working at home, I thought I’d do a J.K. Rowling and work in a caf in a nearby town.

When I got home that afternoon there was an email from a teacher friend at the school asking if something had happened to me. I had spent the day sitting in a caf a stone’s throw from the school, yet completely forgot about my planned visit.

Professor John Studd, the consultant in charge of The London PMS and Menopause Centre, believes that such brain fog is a combination of several factors, including ageing, tiredness due to interrupted sleep from hot flushes, and depression because of a drop in oestrogen levels and other hormonal factors.

‘We all become less articulate, and forget important names as we age,’ he says. ‘But there are times in a woman’s life — the monthly premenstrual phase, the post-natal period and the years up to and beyond menopause — when she is deeply affected by hormonal changes.

‘I see women in their 40s and 50s who complain of short-term memory loss, depression, confusion and loss of concentration and self-confidence. The question is, how much can be corrected with hormone replacement therapy And the answer is, quite a lot.’

So, if it’s all down to the hormonal rollercoaster, does that mean when the menopause is over we can expect to retrieve our marbles

Symptoms can disappear if they are related to PMS (premenstrual syndrome), says Professor Studd, but not if they are due to the permanent lack of oestrogen that occurs post-menopause. ‘The good news is that poor concentration, confusion and mood do improve if you take the right dose of oestrogens,’ he adds.

Studd prescribes HRT in the form of oestradiol as a patch or gel or implant, which removes hot flushes and helps depression and tiredness; testosterone (not just a male hormone but an essential female hormone) to improve energy, mood and libido; and progestogen (for women who have not had a hysterectomy) to protect the lining of the womb.

‘Women who complained of brain fog say they feel much better after a few weeks of HRT,’ he says.
I wonder whether brain fog is more likely to affect women who lead scattered lives, working part-time or not at all, than those who have kept up a structured career that keeps their brain focused and alert. The answer is, nobody knows for sure.


So, if it’s all down to the hormonal
rollercoaster, does that mean when the menopause is over we can expect
to retrieve our marbles

Dr Miriam Weber, author of the US study I mentioned earlier, says: ‘My hypothesis would be that it affects women across all spectrums, as we do think it is related to hormonal effects.’

John Studd, who sees both professional and unemployed women, thinks the only difference is that career women are perhaps more likely to notice a decline in brain function.

For my friend Angela, the solution is not to try to remedy the problem but accept it as a normal part of life. ‘Now, I don’t ever try to remember things,’ she says.

‘I think it’s wrong to expect yourself to remember all this stuff that bombards us. It’s dull and uninteresting and it overloads our brains. Letting go and not trying to keep a grasp on everything is a really good way to be. It’s a life of delight and rediscovery.’

As for me, I’ve tried the Endocrine Mender (no effect) and the Alzheimer’s Mender (severe heartburn). Now I’m torn between embracing my inner flutterbrain and heading off to the doctor for an oestrogen patch.

Sue Carpenter’s brain-fogged alter ego Eliza Gray writes the blog ‘50 is the New Black’, at 50newblack.blogspot.co.uk.