Women past a certain age will experience menopause. Menopause is defined as having no menstrual period for one year. The age you experience it can vary, but it typically occurs in your late 40s or early 50s.
Menopause can cause many changes in your body. The symptoms are the result of a decreased production of estrogen and progesterone in your ovaries. Symptoms may include hot flashes, weight gain, or vaginal dryness. Vaginal atrophy contributes to vagina dryness. With this, there can be inflammation and thinning of the vaginal tissues which adds to uncomfortable intercourse.
Menopause can also increase your risk for certain conditions like osteoporosis. You may find that getting through menopause requires little medical attention. Or you may decide you need to discuss symptoms and treatment options with a doctor.
Keep reading to learn about the 11 things every woman should know about menopause.
The average age for onset of menopause is 51. The majority of women stop having periods somewhere between ages 45 to 55. The beginning stages of declining ovary function can start years before that in some women. Others will continue to have menstrual periods into their late 50s.
The age of menopause is thought to be genetically determined, but things such as smoking or chemotherapy can accelerate ovary decline, resulting in earlier menopause.
Perimenopause vs. menopause
Perimenopause refers to the period of time right before menopause begins.
During perimenopause, your body is beginning the transition into menopause. That means that hormone production from your ovaries is beginning to decline. You may begin to experience some symptoms commonly associated with menopause, like hot flashes. Your menstrual cycle may become irregular, but it won’t cease during the perimenopause stage.
Once you completely stop having a menstrual cycle for 12 consecutive months, you’ve entered menopause.
About 75 percent of women experience hot flashes during menopause, making them the most common symptom experienced by menopausal women. Hot flashes can occur during the day or at night. Some women may also experience muscle and joint pain, known as arthralgia, or mood swings.
It may be difficult to determine whether these symptoms are caused by shifts in your hormones, life circumstances, or the aging process itself.
During a hot flash, you’ll likely feel your body temperature rise. Hot flashes affect the top half of your body, and your skin may even turn red in color or become blotchy. This rush of heat could lead to sweating, heart palpitations, and feelings of dizziness. After the hot flash, you may feel cold.
Hot flashes may come on daily or even multiple times a day. You may experience them over the course of a year or even several years.
Avoiding triggers may reduce the number of hot flashes you experience. These can include:
- consuming alcohol or caffeine
- eating spicy food
- feeling stressed
- being somewhere hot
Being overweight and smoking may also make hot flashes worse.
A few techniques may help reduce your hot flashes and their symptoms:
- Dress in layers to help with hot flashes, and use a fan in your home or office space.
- Do breathing exercises during a hot flash to try to minimize it.
Medications such as birth control pills, hormone therapy, or even other prescriptions may help you reduce hot flashes. See your doctor if you’re having difficulty managing hot flashes on your own.
The decline in estrogen production can affect the amount of calcium in your bones. This can cause significant decreases in bone density, leading to a condition known as osteoporosis. It can also make you more susceptible to hip, spine, and other bone fractures. Many women experience accelerated bone loss the first few years after their last menstrual period.
To keep your bones healthy:
- Eat foods with lots of calcium, such as dairy products or dark leafy greens.
- Take vitamin D supplements.
- Exercise regularly and include weight training in your exercise routine.
- Reduce alcohol consumption.
- Avoid smoking.
There are prescription medications you may want to discuss with your doctor to prevent bone loss as well.
Conditions related to your heart may arise during menopause, such as dizziness or cardiac palpitations. Decreased estrogen levels can prevent your body from retaining flexible arteries. This can impact blood flow.
Watching your weight, eating a healthy and balanced diet, exercising, and not smoking can reduce your chances of developing heart conditions.
Changes in your hormone levels may cause you to gain weight. However, aging can also contribute to weight gain.
Focus on maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and practicing other healthy habits to help control your weight. Being overweight can increase your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.
The symptoms of menopause vary from one woman to another, even in the same families. The age and rate of decline of ovary function differ tremendously. This means you’ll need to manage your menopause individually. What worked for your mother or best friend may not work for you.
Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about menopause. They can help you understand your symptoms and find ways to manage them that work with your lifestyle.
If your uterus was surgically removed through a hysterectomy, you may not know you’re going through menopause unless you experience hot flashes.
This can also happen if you’ve had an endometrial ablation and your ovaries weren’t removed. Endometrial ablation is the removal of the lining of your uterus as treatment for heavy menstruation.
If you aren’t having any symptoms, a blood test can determine if your ovaries are still functioning. This test can be used to help doctors find out your estrogen level, which may be beneficial if you’re at risk of osteoporosis. That’s because knowing your estrogen status may be important in determining whether you need a bone density assessment.
Several hormone therapies are FDA-approved for treatment of hot flashes and prevention of bone loss. The benefits and risks vary depending on the severity of your hot flashes and bone loss, and your health. These therapies may not be right for you. Talk to your doctor before trying any hormone therapies.
Hormone therapy may not be the right choice for you. Some medical conditions may prevent you from safely being able to use hormone therapy or you may choose not to use that form of treatment for your own personal reasons. Changes to your lifestyle may help you relieve many of your symptoms without need for hormonal intervention.
Lifestyle changes may include:
- weight loss
- room temperature reductions
- avoidance of foods that aggravate symptoms
- dressing in light cotton clothing and wearing layers
Other treatments such as herbal therapies, self-hypnosis, acupuncture, certain low-dose antidepressants, and other medications may be helpful in decreasing hot flashes.
Several FDA-approved medications can be used for prevention of bone loss. These may include:
- bisphosphonates, such as risedronate (Actonel, Atelvia) and zoledronic acid (Reclast)
- selective estrogen receptor modulators like raloxifene (Evista)
- calcitonin (Fortical, Miacalcin)
- denosumab (Prolia, Xgeva)
- parathyroid hormone, such as teriparatide (Forteo)
- certain estrogen products
You may find over-the-counter lubricants, estrogen creams, or other products help with vaginal dryness.
Menopause is a natural part of a woman’s life cycle. It’s a time when your estrogen and progesterone levels decrease. Following menopause, your risk for certain conditions like osteoporosis or cardiovascular disease may increase.
To manage your symptoms, maintain a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise to avoid unnecessary weight gain.
You should contact your doctor if you experience adverse symptoms that affect your ability to function, or if you notice anything unusual that might require a closer look. There are plenty of treatment options to help with symptoms like hot flashes.
Check in with your doctor during regular gynecological exams as you experience menopause.