Menopause is a normal condition that all women experience as they age. The term “menopause” is commonly used to describe any of the changes a woman experiences either just before or after she stops menstruating, marking the end of her reproductive period.
A woman is born with a finite number of eggs, which are stored in the ovaries. The ovaries also produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which regulate menstruation and ovulation. Menopause occurs when the ovaries no longer produce an egg every month and menstruation stops.
Menopause, when it occurs after the age of 40, is considered “natural” and is a normal and gradual process of aging. But, some women can experience menopause early, either as a result of a surgical intervention, such as hysterectomy, or damage to the ovaries, such as from chemotherapy. Menopause that occurs before the age of 40, regardless of the cause, is called premature menopause.
Premature menopause can be the result of genetics, autoimmune disorders, or medical procedures. Here are some other conditions that may cause early menopause.
- Premature ovarian failure. Changes in the levels of estrogen and progesterone occur when the ovaries, for unknown reasons, prematurely stop producing eggs. Unlike premature menopause, premature ovarian failure is not always permanent.
- Induced menopause. “Induced” menopause occurs when the ovaries are surgically removed for medical reasons, such as uterine cancer or endometriosis. Induced menopause can also result from damage to the ovaries caused by radiation or chemotherapy.
Most women going through menopause will experience hot flashes, a sudden feeling of warmth that spreads over the upper body that is often accompanied by blushing and some sweating. The severity of hot flashes varies from mild in most women to severe in others. Not all women will experience the same collection or intensity of symptoms. Common menopause symptoms include:
- Irregular or skipped periods
- Mood swings
- Racing heart
- Joint and muscle aches and pains
- Changes in libido (sex drive)
- Vaginal dryness
- Bladder control problems
Two very simple tests can accurately determine what’s going on and what stage of menopause you’re in. Your follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels will dramatically rise as your ovaries begin to shut down; these levels are easily checked through one blood test.
In addition, your vaginal walls will thin, and the cells lining the vagina will not contain as much estrogen. Your doctor will simply take a Pap-like smear from your vaginal walls and analyze the smear to check for the thinning and drying out of your vagina. It also helps if you keep track of your periods and chart them as they become irregular. Your menstrual pattern will be an added clue whether you are approaching menopause.
The loss of estrogen associated with menopause has been linked to a number of health problems that become more common as women age. After menopause, women are more likely to suffer from:
- Osteoporosis (brittle-bone disease)
- Heart disease
- Poor bladder and bowel function
- Poor brain function (increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease)
- Poor skin elasticity (increased wrinkling)
- Poor muscle power and tone
- Some deterioration in vision, such as from cataracts and macular degeneration
To reduce the risks and symptoms of menopause there are several treatment options including hormone replacement therapy that you should discuss with your physician. All treatments carry their own side effects that might influence your decision about a possible treatment plan.