What is menopause?
Menopause marks the time when a woman has her last menstrual period; and results in a number of bodily changes.
Typically, menopause occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, with the average onset at about 50. Postmenopausal women are more at risk of osteoporosis and heart disease because of the decrease in female hormones in their body.
There are three broad phases of menopause: perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause.
As a woman gets older, the levels of oestrogen and progesterone in her body naturally decrease. This decline in female hormones marks the ‘perimenopause’ – or the transition to menopause. During this time, periods may become irregular, or heavier or lighter than usual. Upon menopause, eggs are no longer produced by the ovaries and the menstrual cycle finishes for good. When a woman has had not menstruated for 12 consecutive months, she is considered ‘postmenopausal’.
If this cycle occurs in women younger than 40, it is known as ‘premature’ menopause. For women under 45, it is known as ‘early’ menopause.
Because of the decline in female hormones, postmenopausal women are at a higher risk of osteoporosis, heart disease and stroke as female hormones offer protection against these conditions.
Symptoms of menopause
Menopause produces both physical and psychological symptoms in women. For many women, these symptoms can last between 5 and 8 years as the ovarian hormones still fluctuate within the body; for about 20% of women there will be no symptoms; and for another 20% or so, the symptoms will be severe.
The physical symptoms of menopause include:
- Hot flushes and night sweats
- Bodily aches and pains
- Dry skin
- Vaginal dryness
- Loss of libido
- A need to urinate more
- Unwanted hair growth or thinning of scalp and pubic hair
- Trouble sleeping
The psychological symptoms of menopause include:
- Mood swings
- Forgetfulness or trouble concentrating
Doctors usually diagnose menopause based on these symptoms and the changes to your menstrual cycle. They will not necessarily order a test to confirm that menopause is occurring, although such tests are available.
Causes and treatment of menopause
Menopause is a naturally occurring part of a woman’s life. However, it can be brought on ‘artificially’ if a woman has to have her ovaries removed surgically (usually due to disease) – as the ovaries are responsible for the production of female hormones.
If you are aware of the changes going on, and prepare for them, you will be better placed to deal with the symptoms that arise during menopause and beyond. One of the most effective treatments for menopause involves looking after yourself and staying healthy – if you do so, it is possible to reduce the severity of the symptoms.
Some of the key strategies that will help you deal with postmenopausal symptoms include:
- Quitting smoking
- Eating well
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
- Maintaining a positive outlook
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a treatment some women take to reduce the menopausal symptoms. However, the benefit of reduced symptoms must be weighed up against the increased risk of serious diseases like blood clots and breast cancer – and the Australian Menopause Society only recommends that HRT is taken as a short-term solution for symptoms.
Some women find benefit from natural therapies, but it is important to discuss your options with your doctor before taking these preparations.
And remember, as a postmenopausal woman, it is still important to have regular pap tests and mammograms every two years.
Further information and sources
This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you may have the symptoms of menopause.