Menopause is a normal condition that occurs as a woman ages. Women are born with a finite number of eggs in their ovaries. When the last egg is released, menstruation stops and menopause has begun. Technically, menopause is diagnosed after a woman has not had a menstrual period for 12 consecutive months.
The transition into menopause typically begins between the ages of 45 and 55. It tends to last around 7 years, though it can last twice that long in some cases. The process of moving into and beyond menopause is broken down into three phases:
- Perimenopause. This phase begins a number of years before actual menopause, as production of estrogen (a group of hormones responsible for female characteristics of the body) decreases.
- Menopause. At this point, the ovaries are no longer releasing eggs and very little estrogen is being produced.
- Postmenopause. In this phase, the symptoms of menopause fade, but health risks associated with the lack of estrogen increase.
As menopause approaches and occurs, there are a number of common symptoms, including:
- Irregular or skipped menstrual periods
- Hot flashes
- Muscle pain and joint aches
- Changes in sex drive
- Vaginal dryness
- Bladder control problems
Each woman’s experience of menopause is different, so not all women will have all of these symptoms.
In postmenopause, the hormonal and other changes in a woman’s body increase the risk for:
- Heart disease
- Bladder and bowel problems
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Decreased muscle strength and tone
- Poor skin elasticity and increased wrinkling
The symptoms of menopause and postmenopause can be addressed with a number of treatments, including:
- Lifestyle changes focused on a healthy diet (which may include supplements with calcium and vitamin D), elimination of cigarettes and alcohol, and regular weight-bearing exercise
- Hormone replacement therapy that may include estrogen, progesterone and testosterone
- Medications such as antidepressants
- Ongoing general health screenings such as pelvic exams with PAP smear, breast exam and mammography, X-ray assessment for osteoporosis and blood tests to monitor lipid levels and thyroid function
Perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause pose a number of health challenges for women. However, your doctor can provide the information, assessment and treatment needed to minimize symptoms and maximize wellness.