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Menopause or Dementia?

Women in their 40s and 50s who are experiencing “brain fog” can often feel concerned and unclear about whether this is due to the menopause or early onset dementia.

This concern has grown in recent years after TV presenter Fiona Phillips was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease but originally thought she was experiencing menopausal symptoms.

The description “brain fog” relates to difficulties with memory recall, for example remembering a person’s name. While there can be concern that it might be the onset of dementia, actually a decreased level of oestrogen occurring during menopause can also affect brain function and cause inability to recall known information.

What is dementia?

Dementia is the umbrella term for many diseases that affect brain function, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common. While it commonly affects older adults, Fiona Phillips is among the estimated 70,800 in the UK who live with young onset dementia (where dementia occurs before the age of 65). Some of the shared symptoms between menopause and Alzheimer’s, such as reduced focus and memory lapses, can make it difficult to diagnose this age group of women. This can lead to increased frustration as people wait longer for a correct diagnosis.

What is menopause?

Perimenopause, which can last months or sometimes years, usually affects women in their 40s & 50s, although it can also occur earlier or later. During this time, they gradually cease to have periods and become infertile. Menopause occurs when a woman has her final period and the average age for this is 51. There is a significant reduction in the body’s oestrogen level which can cause a wide range of symptoms including anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, difficulties with temperature regulation (hot flushes) and memory lapses.

Memory difficulties can occur, not only with dementia or hormonal changes in menopause, but can also be due to depression, stress, vitamin or mineral deficiencies eg B12, fatigue or thyroid problems. It is always important to speak with your GP if you have any concerns as often dealing with one of these symptoms may resolve others because they can be interrelated.

Understanding shared symptoms

Understandably women become concerned when they experience the common menopausal symptom of “brain fog”. It can make focusing at work and recalling simple words really difficult and impact a person’s well-being. The longer that memory issues and mood change symptoms last, the more worried women may become about the possibility they are experiencing young onset dementia, instead of the menopause. However, menopause symptoms are not long term but can last around four years. This contrasts with dementia where the symptoms are progressive.

Additionally, people experiencing early signs of dementia are more likely to display other changes in behaviour, vision, spatial awareness and language difficulties, rather than just generalised “brain fog”. The cognitive difficulties associated with dementia affect more than just memory recall and cause functional changes which prevent a person from continuing to manage some daily tasks and activities that they could do before. They may, as a result, start to withdraw from social activities.

When to seek advice and support from GP & what to do about it?

Very often, colleagues or family will notice these changes first. And, because it can be difficult to isolate and understand symptoms, it is important that a GP is consulted if there are concerns around the changes being experienced. A GP can investigate, rule out or treat any alternative causes of these symptoms or advise on the next steps in seeking an appropriate diagnosis.

Tips & take aways

  • Some memory issues occur as part of natural brain aging

  • If you can continue to function and partake in usual daily activities try not to worry

  • Compensate for memory difficulties by putting supportive strategies in place such as writing reminders, setting alerts on smart devices, keep a routine and organise your environment to make daily tasks and finding things easier

  • Talk to friends of a similar age and if you can function at a similar level to them then you are probably experiencing normal age-related memory issues

  • Try to remain mentally and socially active to reduce the risk or dementia or to slow down the progression

  • Engage and stimulate both creative and logical sides of your brain through visual arts, music or writing, word puzzles, games or learning a new language

  • If you have concerns always check with your GP


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