Many older Americans expect to lose brain function but most don’t ask their doctors about preventing dementia. Walking into a room and then forgetting why you are there. Or unable to recall names of old TV shows or long-lost friends or classmates. Even though these instances can be a normal sign of aging, if they become more frequent or escalate, then it’s time to evaluate other causes. In reality, research suggests that less than 20% of people who have reached age 65 will go on to lose cognitive ability from Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia or other conditions. So if it’s not Alzheimer’s, then what is it? It could be something known as mild cognitive impairment. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an early stage of memory loss in people who are still independent.
For people diagnosed with MCI, there are some screening tests worth doing. Screening includes: Checking thyroid and other hormone levels and B12 as well as other markers of inflammation. Ruling out sleep apnea and ADHD are important screening tests but are commonly forgotten. ADHD is a conditon which a person may have had all their lives but is more pronounced since entering menopause. Also, screening for depression and looking for side effects of certain medications are essential in looking for answers.
If symptoms are more related to feeling overwhelmed, forgetful, lack of concentration and difficulty prioritizing, then consider getting screened for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). It is a neuropsychiatric disorder that starts in childhood and and continues throughout life. Three quarters of adults 18 to 44 who are diagnosed with ADHD were never diagnosed as children. For adults 60 and older, that’s 100% according to Dr. David Goodman, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The reason is that half a century ago, practitioners simply didn’t know how to screen for it in children.
When a woman reaches menopause or the stretch of time before her last menstrual period (peri-menopause), the symptoms of ADHD can be significantly worse. The drop in estrogen (which is very protective for the brain) can make hyperactivity, distractibility, executive function challenges, including time management and impulse control more difficult. This means coping methods that you may have relied on no longer work. Lowered estrogen levels affect short-term memory and the ability to focus. Many women complain of “brain fog”. These lowered estrogen levels in women may also not allow ADHD stimulants to work effectively. This is more of a problem for women than men since testosterone seems to have no effect on either the impairments of ADHD or the effects of ADHD medications in men.
Only 1 in 5 memory disorder clinics actively screen for ADHD. People can have ADHD all their lives and now they are developing dementia. Now you have 2 processes contributing to cognitive difficulty.
Menopausal women experiencing cognitive decline should be screened for ADHD. If ADHD is positive, then behavior strategies, counseling and medication should be considered. Stimulants such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Vyvanse are typically used to treat ADHD in young people. Many doctors have been trained to avoid these meds due to their risk of high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems. The studies are mixed and a 2020 review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found a link between stimulant use and modest elevation of heart rate and blood pressure. But according to Dr. Bill Dodson, a Denver psychiatrist who specializes in adults with ADHD, “the effects observed were minuscule and of no clinical significance”.
Clinical trials from the 2002 Women’s Health initiative have cast a shadow on the safety of hormone replacement therapy. Subsequent evaluations have found the dangers of HRT to be overstated, while the health risks of low estrogen are well established. For more, check out What you need to know about hormone replacement therapy
There are ways to manage your symptoms. See a practitioner and express your concerns so biological markers can be ruled out and screening tests can be performed. Not all slowing cognition at middle age is due to a medical reason. Stress management and good support can make a significant difference in our lives. People with ADHD have a tendency to overcommit. When you feel overwhelmed, that is a sign you need to simplify. There are ADHD coaches and support groups that can help. CHADD.org is an educational and advocacy nonprofit that offers a network of regional support groups.
References: Macmillan, C. Mild Cognitive Impairment: It’s Not “Normal” Aging. Yalemedicine.org. Doctors & Advice, Family Medicine. June 6,2022.
Barger, T. Attention, Please! If memory and focus problems are placing you at midlife, it could be undiagnosed ADHD. Here’s how to tell. AARP Bulletin Dec 2022. pp. 20-21