Estrogen after menopause may blunt stress' effects on memory

November 11, 2013 by Kathleen Doheny, Healthday Reporter
Estrogen after menopause may blunt stress' effects on memory
In small study, older women with higher hormone levels didn't show memory decline.

(HealthDay)—Estrogen therapy after menopause may help reduce the memory problems associated with stress in some older women, a small new study suggests.

"Those higher levels of estrogen are related to less release of stress hormone after a stressful event," said study researcher Alexandra Ycaza, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Southern California.

Ycaza is scheduled to present the findings Sunday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in San Diego.

The use of hormone-replacement therapy after menopause declined sharply in the United States after a clinical trial looking at estrogen and progestin therapy was halted in 2002. The researchers found that the benefits (reductions in colon cancer, hot flashes and hip fractures) were outweighed by the risks (heart attack, stroke and blood clots).

Many experts recommend women in menopause take the lowest dose of possible for the briefest time only if they are having bothersome symptoms.

For the study, Ycaza evaluated women who were part of a larger study that looked at the differences between taking hormone-replacement therapy soon after menopause versus later, as well as the therapy's effect on the cardiovascular system. That study assigned women to one of two groups—those taking hormone replacement and those not—and then followed them for nearly five years. For her research, Ycaza focused on 42 of these women.

In random order, she exposed them either to a stressful situation—putting their hand in ice water for three minutes—or a non-stressful situation. During each of the sessions, she measured levels of estrogen and the .

After each situation, the women took tests to gauge their working memory, such as remembering lists of words while reading sentences and making decisions on whether sentences were grammatically correct.

Ycaza looked at the performance and then looked to see if estrogen and were a factor. "Our women in the bottom level [of estrogen] showed a decrease in the number of words they could remember after the stress [situation]," she said.

They remembered about 50 percent of the words after being stressed. "If they are not being stressed, they remember about 60 percent."

The higher-estrogen women remembered 55 percent of the words each time, whether stressed or not before the test.

The cortisol levels of the lower-estrogen women doubled from before the stressful exposure to after. The cortisol levels in the higher-estrogen women increased very little after the stressful exposure.

It wasn't known in the new study which women were taking hormone-replacement therapy. The research did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between a woman having higher hormone levels and not having a reduction in memory.

Older women can turn to other approaches besides hormone therapy to protect memory, said Dr. James Burke, director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C. Burke was not part of the study.

"Research generally supports daily exercise, intellectual stimulation, social engagement and a Mediterranean diet," Burke said.

"The results are intriguing, but the study was small," he said. The ice-water plunge, he added, "is not the same as real-life stressors."

Another expert said hormone treatment would only be viable for certain women.

"The established risks of hormone-replacement therapy for the average post-menopausal woman are not worth the potential benefits," said Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, who reviewed the study findings. "However, for that minority of women who are experiencing severe symptoms, it is worth the risk to maintain function."

Exercise would help withstand the effects of stress, he said.

The study received funding from the U.S. National Institute on Aging. Because it was presented at a medical meeting, the conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information: To learn more about hormone therapy studies, try the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Related Stories

Estrogen helps keep joint pain at bay after hysterectomy

March 20, 2013

Estrogen therapy can help keep joint pain at bay after menopause for women who have had a hysterectomy. Joint pain was modestly, but significantly, lower in women who took estrogen alone than in women who took placebo in ...

ACOG: Hormone therapy not recommended to prevent CHD

May 24, 2013

(HealthDay)—Menopausal hormone therapy should not be used for prevention of coronary heart disease, according to a Committee Opinion from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) published in the June ...

Recommended for you

Research grasps how the brain plans gripping motion

July 28, 2015

With the results of a new study, neuroscientists have a firmer grasp on the way the brain formulates commands for the hand to grip an object. The advance could lead to improvements in future brain-computer interfaces that ...

New research rethinks how we grab and hold onto objects

July 28, 2015

It's been a long day. You open your fridge and grab a nice, cold beer. A pretty simple task, right? Wrong. While you're debating between an IPA and a lager, your nervous system is calculating a complex problem: how hard to ...

It don't mean a thing if the brain ain't got that swing

July 27, 2015

Like Duke Ellington's 1931 jazz standard, the human brain improvises while its rhythm section keeps up a steady beat. But when it comes to taking on intellectually challenging tasks, groups of neurons tune in to one another ...

Sleep makes our memories more accessible, study shows

July 27, 2015

Sleeping not only protects memories from being forgotten, it also makes them easier to access, according to new research from the University of Exeter and the Basque Centre for Cognition, Brain and Language. The findings ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.