What is it?
The menopause occurs when levels of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone fall and your body stops producing eggs. Menstruation ceases permanently and you’re no longer able to conceive. It can be a time of great physical and emotional change that can overwhelm you if you don’t know what to expect.
When does it occur?
There’s no predicting when the menopause will occur. Generally, it’s between the ages of 45 and 55, but for a few women it can start as early as 35 – or as late as 60. This doesn’t mean you’re in any way abnormal, although an unusually early menopause (before the age of 36, sometimes as young as 18) may have implications that need to be addressed.
Without the previously high levels of oestrogen, your risk of heart disease and osteoporosis (brittle bones) increases. If the menopause comes early – or if there’s a high family risk of these diseases – you should see your GP. If he or she thinks it appropriate, a bone-density scan or mammogram will be arranged.
Usually, there’ll be some sign that the menopause is approaching. Periods can gradually become further apart, they may be scantier and not last as long. Alternatively, some women experience heavier bleeding with shorter gaps between. Occasionally, menstruation just stops altogether with no warning.
For the majority of women, the menopause will last no more than a couple of years, although others experience symptoms for as long as five or six years.
- Hot flushes. Most women experience these in varying degrees of severity. There can be an all-over hot feeling one minute – enough to make you feel like opening all the windows in the house – and a shivering sensation the next. On average, flushes occur four or five times a day and usually last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Some women also experience ‘crawling’ sensations on the skin.
- Night sweats. These are hot flushes that occur at night. If severe, they can drench your bedding, disturbing your sleep pattern and that of your partner.
- Irregular, scant or heavy periods. This is a common sign of the approaching menopause, but it’s worth remembering that irregular or heavy bleeding can be caused by conditions other than the menopause (for example, polyps or fibroids), so it’s a good idea to get it checked out.
- Dry or itchy skin. As we age, our skin becomes thinner and without oestrogen our skin finds it difficult to retain moisture.
- Aches and pains. Low levels of oestrogen can lead to an increase in aches and pains. These can range from joint and muscular pains to backaches or headaches.
- Insomnia. This is caused by low levels of oestrogen, but can be exacerbated by night sweats as these disturb your sleep pattern. It can also be brought on by anxiety or depression.
- Tiredness and lethargy. Lack of sleep due to night sweats can cause you to feel exhausted during the day.
- Bladder problems. These include an increased susceptibility to cystitis or other bladder infections and stress incontinence. Stress incontinence is caused by loss of muscle and tissue elasticity in the pelvic cavity, which leads to a tendency to leak urine on coughing or laughing. Pelvic floor exercises can help. Some women also experience reduced bladder capacity.
Some women sail through the menopause with no emotional changes whatsoever, but for others there may be psychological issues to contend with – on top of all the strange physical effects.
Mood swings can range from tearfulness and irritability to depression. Depression may be more likely in the years right before menopause, especially if you’ve suffered from PMS (premenstrual syndrome) in the past.
Your hormones can make life miserable, but oestrogen deficiency alone may not be causing you to feel emotionally ‘out of kilter’. It’s not always clear whether depression is linked to low oestrogen levels or to the fact that many women face changes during their 40s and 50s, such as pressures of work or marriage, caring for unwell or elderly parents, problems with children and struggling to cope with the altered self-image that can come with ageing.
Emotional symptoms can include:
- Loss of vaginal elasticity. Intercourse can become uncomfortable or painful due to the thinning of the vaginal walls, causing dryness and loss of elasticity. A water-based lubricant can help, although if the pain is severe and persistent it’s advisable to seek medical help.
- Panic attacks. Getting older in a society where youth is everything can be stressful and cause increased levels of anxiety. Frequently feeling anxious can lead to panic attack symptoms including palpitations, shortness of breath or dizziness.
- Poor memory and concentration. Since oestrogen plays a part in the healthy functioning of nerve cells in the brain, there could be some slight drop-off in concentration when there’s less of it.
On the other hand, some women find they enjoy sex more after the menopause. Freedom from worry about unwanted pregnancy can release your inhibitions, bringing with it spontaneity and an increase in sexual confidence. For some couples, it can be a new beginning.
The extent of the symptoms varies from person to person, but with a bit of help you can minimise the effects.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Trisha Macnair in August 2005.
First published in November 1997.
- Decrease in sexual desire. Some women ‘go off’ sex during and even after the menopause. This may be caused by the decrease in female hormones, tiredness or vaginal dryness, which can cause pain or discomfort. However, the reasons aren’t always physical. Some women find the changes they go through during the menopause affect how they feel about themselves. If there are misunderstandings in a long-term relationship that have never been addressed, they may come to the fore now. It could be that the menopause is the trigger but not the cause of your loss of libido. Try talking things through with your partner.
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HRT After Menopause Reduces Symptoms (HealthDay via Yahoo! News) – THURSDAY, Aug. 21 (HealthDay News) — Hormone replacement therapy, even when it’s started many years after menopause, can reduce some of the quality-of-life problems caused by menopause, such as sleep problems and hot flashes.
Fretting over menopause in workplace (The Plain Dealer) – Terri Bell knew menopause was hurting her work performance. She couldn’t sleep at night and spent the whole day irritable, dying for a nap. When a new medicine finally gave her relief from menopause symptoms, she could function again.
Menopause: The Benefits of Starting Hormone Therapy Early (Newsweek) – New research shows that estrogen replacement early may minimize menopausal symptoms and improve sexuality for mid-life women while reducing the risks of HRT.
Sexual Problems During Menopause (ThirdAge) – It’s unfortunate but true: Menopause can affect your sex life. Come here to talk about the problems you might be experiencing.
Major study shows significant quality-of-life benefits from HRT (EurekAlert!) – ( International Menopause Society ) A major international study of the effects of HRT use on quality of life has shown that HRT use can significantly improve well-being in women with menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats.
London News and Reviews (Evening Standard) – Women gain significant benefits in quality of life from taking HRT even years after the menopause, say researchers. Older women enjoy improvements in many aspects of health when taking Hormone Replacement Therapy.
Expert to lecture on alternative remedies for menopause (Island Packet) – Diana McCoy never knew misery until she experienced night sweats, one of the dreaded symptoms of menopause.
Hormone replacement can improve life quality: study (Reuters via Yahoo! News) – Hormone replacement therapy can improve the quality of a woman’s life, easing the distress of hot flashes, sleep disturbances and restoring lost sexual functioning, researchers reported on Thursday.
Coming up (This Week Dublin) – “The Great Balancing Act,” a “Speaking of Women” health event at Dublin Methodist Hospital, 7500 Hospital Drive, from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 28. Session will focus on peri-menopause, hormones and resources available to women. For information or to register, call (614) 443-2584 and ask for the “Speaking of Women” workshops.
LocalGuide (Billings Gazette) – Wednesday, August 20, 2008 Local events? FREE PROGRAM “MANAGING MENOPAUSE”: noon to 1 p.m. (lunch included), Billings Clinic conference center, registration required, call 255-8440.
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