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Pregnancy and Memory Loss

Does pregnancy cause memory loss?


Does pregnancy cause memory loss? It is not unusual of expecting mothers to complain of forgetfulness; however, their complaint of forgetfulness is usually relegated to a result of the stress which is so natural to women who are expecting a child. Stress, of course, has been proven to affect memory and cause forgetfulness—or memory loss—especially when experienced for a longer period of time. And since pregnancy lasts for about nine months on average, naturally this ongoing stress could affect the memory of a woman who is pregnant. Other times, forgetfulness in pregnant woman is attributed to the fact that they are likely to be distracted because of their newfound focus on the health and welfare of their child. However, could these complaints of memory loss during pregnancy be more than just a result of pregnancy-related stress or worry about their child?
Pregnancy and Memory Loss
A recent study by two Australian memory researchers has concluded that yes, pregnant women actually do experience memory loss which is not necessarily related to pregnancy-related stress or worries. Dr. Julie Henry, a co-author of the study, relates their findings as told to CNN.com: "What we found is that memory tasks which are more challenging or more novel, or those that would require multitasking -- these types of tasks are likely to be disrupted.” The research found that pregnant women are more likely to experience memory loss—in particular, short term memory loss—when related to tasks or information which is new or challenging to them.

For example: A woman who is pregnant will be significantly more likely to forget the name of a new acquaintance, a new telephone number which is given to her, and other new information she learns while she is pregnant; she is not, however, more likely to forget the names of people she already knows, telephone numbers she has dialed a thousand times, or information that she has already learned. The memory loss phenomenon in pregnant woman is almost entirely relegated to new information and short term memory.

Another study, conducted by Diane Farrar of the University of Bradford, involved testing the spatial memory of pregnant woman. Spatial memory refers to the memories which relate to information such as where someone has set down their car keys or where they have parked their car in a parking lot. In addition to testing this memory, Farrar measured the levels of a specific set of sex hormones in pregnant women and had participants fill out a questionnaire which measured their mood and their level of anxiety. For the study, Farrar tested 23 pregnant women and 24 women who were not pregnant with the same memory tests, hormones measurements, and questionnaires.

The study found that pregnant women in their second and third trimesters did significantly worse on the spatial memory tests and has a significantly higher level of sex hormone in their bodies than the women who were not pregnant. Farrar presentedher findings at the Society for Endocrinology BES conference in Manchester England, suggesting that the study concluded that a high level of sex hormones which circulate through the bodies of pregnant women--especially in their second and third trimesters--had a negative impact on memory because of the hormones impact on neurons in in the brain which are responsible for regular spatial memory. Although the findings are not one-hundred percent conclusive, because sex steroids at higher levels in the body are known to have a damaging effect on neurons, it is likely that these higher levels of hormones in pregnant women do play a significant part in memory loss during pregnancy.

Reasons for memory loss during pregnancy

Research on the subject of memory loss in pregnant women suggests that there are several reasons why pregnant women are at a higher risk for experiencing memory loss than women who are not pregnant. These reasons include a higher level of sex hormones in the body and a higher risk for depression and anxiety.

Pregnancy and Memory Loss
Farrar’s research on the amount of sex hormones in pregnant women found that the higher the level of sex hormone, the more likely it was for the woman to experience spatial memory loss—or in other words, memory loss related to very new information. Spatial memory loss, such as remembering where a car has been parked, is similar to short term memory related to other types of new information—such as new telephone numbers and new names. Although Henry’s research did not measure the amount of sex hormones in the bodies of the women who participated in the study, and Farrar did not measure short term memory loss in other areas besides spatial memory, it is likely that pregnant women experience an increased inability to remember such short-term information due to the increase in sex hormones in their body.

Farrar’s study also found that the pregnant women who participated in her study who reported higher levels of depression and anxiety were also among those who performed poorly on spatial memory tests. Farrar’s study found that memory loss decreased slightly in pregnant woman who reported higher levels of depression, but had lower levels of sex hormones, several months after the birth of their child when their depression and anxiety levels were lower. (Women who had higher levels of sex hormones but lower levels of depression did not experience the same improvement in memory loss.)

Does memory loss last beyond pregnancy?

Both studies on memory loss during pregnancy came to slightly different conclusions about when, exactly, the memory loss resulting from pregnancy loses its impact. Farrar’s study found that the women in her study experienced improvement in spatial memory loss about 1 to 3 months after pregnancy; while Henry’s study found that women experienced memory loss related to new or challenging information for about one year after their pregnancy. It is possible that spatial memory returns to normal levels earlier than other types of short term memory which are affected by pregnancy, although neither Farrar’s nor Henry’s study compared the types of memory loss.
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