Memory, concentration and the menopause

Changes in hormonal levels during the menopause, the ageing process and social factors at midlife can all impair memory and concentration. Coping with symptoms alongside the stress of work and domestic responsibilities can be exhausting and confusing (see ‘Work’ and ‘Family, health and life events’). Women told us how problems with memory and concentration affected them and how they coped.
Effects of poor memory and concentration
Forgetting words, appointments, keys, people’s names and birthdays, or doing ‘silly things’ like filling the bath up with cold water are frustrating. Women felt disconnected and a ‘little bit out of town’ when they couldn’t remember even simple everyday things. They talked about their memory being ‘shot to pieces’, about their brain being ‘in a vacuum’, of having a ‘huge hangover’ and ‘cotton wool for a brain’.
Poor memory, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating can cause problems at work and at home. Women had difficulty taking in and processing information, finding the right word, remembering details, spelling, answering emails, and organising tasks. They felt ‘bombarded’ when asked to take on too many tasks and embarrassed when they forgot what they were saying in the middle of a conversation or couldn’t recall what people had told them.
Loss of memory and poor concentration can be annoying and sometimes funny, but women also found it frightening. When memory and organisational skills are affected by the menopause, working at a high or senior level can become almost impossible. Trying to hide memory losses can be exhausting and add to the stress of the menopause. Women wondered whether their inability to remember things might be not just an unwelcome menopausal symptom but a sign of something more sinister. One questioned whether her poor memory had to do with the menopause, getting older, or the ‘plaques in my brain starting to fur up’; another found her recent misspellings out of character and wondered if it was an ‘early sign of dementia’.
Ways of improving memory and concentration
Women recommended some simple strategies which they’d found useful in improving their memory and concentration. These included writing everything down, making notes and ‘to do’ lists, keeping a diary, having a calendar in the kitchen with everyone’s birthday on it, and using spell check. Just sharing experiences of memory problems with other women can be reassuring.
Summarising information by drawing diagrams or ‘mind maps’, using word or letter associations, or simply repeating important points can be useful memory aids. Keeping the brain active by doing crosswords and doing adult education courses helped some women.
As tiredness can affect memory and concentration, it’s important to try and reduce the effects of symptoms on sleep (see ‘Sleep’). There is no evidence that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can improve memory loss, but women who use it may find it indirectly improves their memory by relieving hot flushes, sweats and other symptoms which disrupt sleep (see ‘Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)’). While complementary therapies may also help reduce menopausal symptoms, no evidence so far supports claims that herbal remedies such as gingko can help with memory problems (see ‘Complementary therapies’).
At times even simple strategies designed to help memory loss can fail. One woman sums up her frustration, ‘I wrote down everything in my diary, even the littlest things. And then I’d forget the diary’. But many women find their memory and concentration returning to premenopausal levels as symptoms ease and sleep is restored after the menopause. If you have any concerns about your memory, however, it’s best to see your doctor to rule out more serious conditions such as dementia.

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Last reviewed July 2018.



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