Spatial Memory in Menopausal Women

Estrogen is a type of hormone that has many important bodily functions in women. The development of female breasts and the regulation of the menstrual cycle are influenced by estrogen. It is known that estrogen levels tend to drop when a woman reaches menopause. According to many studies, this drop in the levels of estrogen has a positive effect on a woman’s spatial memory. Thus, the lower the estrogen level in a woman’s body, the sharper her spatial memory becomes. Estrogens or estrogens form a group of steroidal compounds that function as the primary sex hormone of women.

These hormones diffuse in the cell membrane and interact with receptors to perform its functions. As the production of estrogen increases in a female’s ovules, puberty starts along with its related physiological changes. In most women, estrogen levels are maintained in the same proportions for about 25 years. After this period, the production of the sex hormone decreases constantly (Becker et al. , 2008, p. 316). Ovules undergo a process of maturation in the ovary for about 25 years, and then their number starts to gradually decrease, resulting in menopause.

This process results in the lowering of estrogen levels in the body which affects a variety of bodily functions. The body reacts to this reduction by generating two different hormones from the pituitary gland: Luetinisante Hormone or LH, and Ovule Stimulating Hormone or FSH (Becker et al. , 2008, p. 318). While these hormones perform estrogen’s functions together, they cause uncomfortable symptoms like night sweat or hot flushes when their increase corresponds to a decrease in the level of estrogen. The human body contains three main forms of estrogens: estriol, estrone, and estradiol.

Among these, estradiol is the estrogen that experts measure to analyze the condition of a nonpregnant woman. The level of estradiol in the bloodstream changes throughout the whole menstrual cycle and diminishes significantly during menopause and usually remains constant. In addition, the hormones LH and FSH are also found in men. The hormones help their bodies produce sperm and stimulate testosterone synthesis. According to many experts, menopause and drop of estrogen levels associated with it have a significant effect on the spatial memory of women.

Spatial memory refers to the part of the human memory which is responsible for processing and keeping information that describes an individual’s spatial orientation and environment. For instance, a person needs his spatial memory to navigate his city, school or office. Animals also have spatial memory, including rats who use spatial memory to locate food. Some experts argue that an individual’s spatial memory makes use of a cognitive map to look for things (Becker et al. , 2008, p. 320). Spatial memory is constructed after an individual processes sensory data from its environment, primarily through vision.

Humans need the hippocampus to form memories regarding space. Spatial memory is associated with the brain’s right hemisphere, and this is supposedly where the lack of estrogen during menopause affects women’s perception of space. Aside from the scientific explanation on the hormonal level, evolutionary theory may also support the concept that estrogen levels affect the spatial memory of women. According to the hunter-gatherer theory, males were hunters and females were gatherers in the early stages of human history, causing differences in their brain development and their corresponding effects on cognition to evolve (Halpern, 2000, p.

12). Since the males’ task is to hunt and track prey for food, their spatial orientation and ability to transform spatial images have developed very well through human history. These mental abilities allowed them to chase prey across unknown territories and set traps in appropriate locations. In contrast, the females’ task is to locate sources of food among scattered vegetation and be able to find them again the following year. This role developed women’s spatial memory through time and they retain it today (Halpern, 2000, p.

14). Estrogen is known to have many effects on human cognition. The hormone has been found to have negative effects on spatial transformation and the mental rotation of images which men excel on (Halpern, 2000, p. 15). Verbal memory though seems to be positively benefited by estrogen, demonstrated by the fact that menopausal women who receive estrogen replacement therapy exhibit improvements in their short-term and long-term memory.

It’s not only women though who get positive benefits from estrogen. Men who are given estrogen supplements exhibit better verbal memories than those who are not given supplements. In a study conducted by Encarnacion et al. (2003) found out that low levels of estrogen are indeed associated with higher performance of women in spatial memory tests. When estrogen levels were high however, women performed lower on spatial memory tests but scored higher on verbal performance tests.

The researchers measured two categories of spatial ability: spatial orientation which is the ability to identify the spatial relationship and position of stimuli relative to an observer, and spatial visualization which measured the ability to control the stimuli in the mind without changing its configuration. Researchers gauged women’s performance during the menstrual cycle which lasts for 28 days. The menstrual phase of the cycle that lasts for one to five days is associated with low estrogen levels while the follicular phase is associated with medium estrogen levels.

High estrogen levels are also identified in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle that lasts for nineteen to twenty-four days, while low amounts of estrogen are identified in the premenstrual period which occurs for twenty-four to twenty-eight days. Results indicated that males did do better than women in spatial transformation tests that measured mental rotation abilities. While women did not outperform men, they scored better on the tests when their estrogen levels were low during the menstrual cycle.

The study also revealed that in tests that measured spatial memory, women were better than men on tasks that evaluated their abilities in identifying the location of objects. These results occurred however, when women’s estrogen levels were high, which the researchers had not predicted. There were no significant differences between the sexes however, in tests that measured verbal memory, although women scored higher than expected. The relationship between estrogen and spatial memory has also been studied in other mammals, like rats and monkeys.

In a study conducted by Healy et al. (1999), they found out that there is little evidence for differences in spatial memory of rats between sexes when tested on different levels of estrogen. However, in their experiments, rats that were treated with higher dosages of the estrogen estradiol performed more poorly on the water maze that the researchers devised. The investigators concluded that estradiol at the physiological level doesn’t have significant effects on memory and spatial learning of rats (Healy, et al. , 1999, p. 2307).

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