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Memory Loss During Pregnancy

Rani Long


You feel as big as a house. You get heartburn each day. You have to go to the bathroom every ten minutes. And, where did you put those keys?!

Amidst the many changes your body is challenged with during pregnancy, you must also deal with the effects of pregnancy on your mental health. It is no secret that your emotions are likely to be more delicate than ever, but your short-term memory may take a beating as well, especially in the third trimester. If you're lucky, forgetfulness will not be among the many trials you face as a pregnant woman. But it is a common symptom during pregnancy, and like everything else you are experiencing, this is not your imagination!

No longer dismissed at just "one of those things" you must deal with while pregnant, some medical researchers are addressing the problem by investigating various possible causes for the short-term memory loss. For instance, it has been suggested that it is the change in sleep patterns during pregnancy that affect a woman's ability to remember information, rather than changes to the brain. Also, a plethora of well-meaning health articles stress that an upcoming birth is more than enough to overwhelm an expectant mother, with thoughts and concerns plaguing her so that her memory may be more hazy than usual.

Other studies attribute weakened memory to iron deficiency during pregnancy. If your body doesn't have enough iron to fuel hemoglobin production for you and your baby, you're likely to develop iron-deficient anemia. Some common symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, irritability and yes, forgetfulness. From about the twentieth week of pregnancy, the little life inside you has been using up much of your iron intake, so break out the lentils and green leafy vegetables!

But let's not forget the hormones. Always the hormones. According to a 1998 report in Fit Pregnancy magazine, at least one study has found that pregnant women's brains get smaller in the third trimester. British researchers scanned the brains of ten moms-to-be during their last trimesters and again a few months after their babies were born and discovered that brain cell volume decreases during pregnancy, only to plump up again sometime after delivery. The researchers speculate that hormones cause the shrinkage; they hope further study will prove their hypothesis.

Whether or not our brains actually shrink, there is no escaping the wrath of hormones, causing both mental and physical changes. Pamela Keenan, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, has shown that women in their third trimester of pregnancy experience forgetfulness approximately fifteen percent more than the average person. One possible explanation is the high level of oxytocin, (a natural hormone produced in women during pregnancy and while nursing), during the third trimester. As Dr. Keenan notes, "Oxytocin is known to have an amnestic effect, which may contribute to a weakened memory." But that's not all. According to Dr. Keenan's studies, the third trimester of pregnancy, when estrogen levels peaked, was also characterized by greater levels of reported anxiety and depression. "This was surprising, especially because pregnancy is so often described as a blissful, almost euphoric time," said Dr. Keenan. Curious about the validity of the anxiety and depression measures of the study, Dr. Keenan divided the questions into two categories: cognitive concerns and somatic (or physical) concerns. She found that the category that women felt most anxious about, especially toward the end of their pregnancy, was physical: fatigue, weight gain, inability to work, altered appearance, and disinterest in sex were all concerns expressed. All the symptoms of their depression she found, really had to do with simple physical concerns of pregnancy rather than genuine feelings of sadness. Continuing along similar lines of study, Dr. Keenan is collaborating on several other projects with Wayne State/Detroit Medical Center scientists and clinicians. For example, she and Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg are studying the effects of decreasing hormone levels not only on memory, but also brain structures associated with memory.

So with everything else you need to keep track of these days, you must eat your spinach, sleep regularly, remain calm and mellow and also monitor your brain shrinkage. Not much you can do about the hormones...but it's all part of the waiting game of pregnancy. Your brain functions will spring back properly into place as your body re-claims itself following birth.

In a more serious vein of thought, it's refreshing to see research unfolding on the subject of memory loss during pregnancy. Dr. Keenan's research, for instance, has been a welcome relief for many. "Women are generally very eager to participate in these studies," Dr. Keenan says. "They are glad that somebody is finally studying the symptoms and complaints that they have known about for so long."

Rani Long, writer and mother of 1-year-old Alden, lives in New York's Hudson Valley.

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MElissa Jan 7, 2013 02:26:47 AM ET

I have a friend whose niece is a pregnant teen. Out of the blue she lost it. She does not know who she is. Up to the point of being put in the mental hosital. Completely lost it. ANY idea what this could be? The dr's are stumped.

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christal Nov 6, 2012 08:58:22 AM ET

I'm in my 18th wk an work full time... I've been forgetting so many things I honestly can't remember what I talked about with my boss this morning and its so irritating. I've been tryn to even just remember the day in order and all I get is bits and pieces... its so upsetting to not remember anything...

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Kari Oct 25, 2010 05:01:38 PM ET

I completly agree with y'alls comments. This is my second pregnancy and i am 20 weeks, and I really feel like a peice of my brain is missing or not working. Like I physically feel it in my head. I also work full-time, school part-time, and have a husband and a 3 year old. I dont forget my keys bc I have a hook I put them on when i walk into the house, but I am forgetting to do stuff at work and forgetting school assignments, amongst other things. I really think the memory loss thing should be studied much much more, and i also believe there needs to be some kind of short-term disability for us, for school and work. Other mentally disabled students get extra help or time and I think we should be able to use that if we need it. It's not fair for us to get into trouble at work or make lower grades because we aren't able to retain the info at this point in time of our pregnancy. I also agree with men not understanding, in fact i think they are jelous because we have an excuse for feeling lazier or tired or forgetting things, they don't, and they don't seem to care about trying to understand wither. They get us pregnant, and the rest of the work and pain is ours to bear. When we have modd swings, we are just nags. I am angry about this.

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Christiana Sep 3, 2010 07:11:04 PM ET

This is my 3rd pregnancy. I did not have problems with memory loss in my first 2 pregnancy. This pregnancy I feel as if I am losing it because I cannot remember anything. I even left the house without my shoes on. I put shoes on my children, got in the car and started down the road before I realized no shoes... I look forward to my brain coming back after the birth. I am going to try taking DHA to see if that helps.

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Staci Feb 25, 2010 05:43:13 PM ET

I am currently working fulltime, attending school fulltime and pregnant fulltime. Last school quarter, I did VERY well in every one of my classes. All A's and a B in anatomy.. This quarter, now that I am 8 months, I am losing my mind. I am unable to retain any information that I have learned. I can not recall the lesson learned the previous night before. I am frustrated and my grades are dropping. It's embarassing. I thought it was caused from lack of sleep. One night, while I was reading my daily "what to expect when you are expecting" iPhone App, i learned that during this time of the pregnancy, some women may experience a case of amnesia. Memory loss is quite often, and I dont feel so crazy now. For a minute, I thought i was slowly losing my IQ. Although, my instructor, and everyone else, thinks it's all mental (true) and there's no such thing as memory loss.. (sooo UNTRUE) I am a living example.

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T Feb 23, 2010 09:52:58 PM ET

New research is finding out that lack of sufficient DHA (a type of Omega 3 fatty acid) could be the cause of this brain shrinkage. The fetus requires significant amounts of DHA for brain and eye development. If the mother is not providing it through diet, the fetus will pull it from the mother's own brain, which uses DHA. Fish oil supplements or eating salmon are two good sources of DHA.

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MELISSA Oct 2, 2009 10:10:15 AM ET


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Sheenna Mar 4, 2007 12:19:16 AM ET

Ive had to deal with alot durring my pregnancies, but the one thing that gets me the most is my memory loss. Not only do i forget my cell phone, my keys, i get so wrapped up in work and my other child i sometimes forget really important things like bills and appointments. I just dont know what to do, and its definately affecting my marraige. Men just dont understand anything... do they?

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