Menopause in Women - The Age and Symptoms

As discussions on sexual and reproductive health become more open, topics like menopause which were earlier shrouded in silence or later consigned to misogynist jokes, have finally been getting the discussion they deserve. So whether you are on the verge of menopause or have a partner who is so, here are a few facts about menopause in women – the age where it is likely to start and its symptoms.

What is Menopause?

Menopause marks the end of the fertile period in a woman’s life and is typically diagnosed twelve months after she ceases menstruating. Menopause is a physiological transition phase and not a disease. The concerns and discomfort brought on by some symptoms of menopause are caused by the changing levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body of a woman entering menopause. These two female hormones are made in the ovaries and are crucial for regulating the female reproductive system.

This time of change is known as the menopausal transition, but it is also called perimenopause by many women and their doctors. It can even begin several years before a woman’s last menstrual period. Perimenopause lasts for one year after her last period. After a full year without a period, one can say she has been "through menopause." Postmenopause follows menopause and lasts the rest of her life.

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What is the age when one can expect to hit menopause?

Just like every woman has a different age for reaching puberty, so too the age where one is likely to hit menopause will be different for different women. In the United States, the average age of a woman having her last period, menopause, is 511. But, some women have their last period in their forties, and some have it later in their fifties. However the age for women experiencing menopause can depend on many other factors like race, ethnicity, lifestyle and other health parameters.

  • Smoking

    Certain lifestyle factors like smoking can also lead to early menopause. While research has long been convinced that smoking in pregnant women could be related to higher risk of miscarriage, its effect on women’s seems more pervasive than before. A research2 conducted at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital have found out that toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke can prematurely trigger the genetic signals that cause a woman's egg cells to die and her ovaries to shut down, thus in effect leading to menopause.
     

  • Surgeries

    Some types of operations can influence the time of menopause. For example, surgery to remove the uterus, known a hysterectomy, will make a woman’s periods stop – this type of menopause is technically known as surgical menopause or induced menopause. But one might not have menopause symptoms like hot flashes right then because if the ovaries are untouched, they still make hormones. In time, when the ovaries start to make less estrogen, menopause symptoms could start. But, sometimes both ovaries may be removed in a procedure called an oophorectomy,  usually along with your uterus. This will result in menopause too. In this case, menopause symptoms can start right away, no matter what the age of the woman, because her body has lost its main supply of estrogen.
     

  • Certain types of cancer therapy - chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy - can also result in menopause if given to an ovulating woman
     
  • Premature ovarian failure is defined as the occurrence of menopause before the age of forty. This condition occurs in about 1% of all women. The cause of premature ovarian failure is not fully understood, but it may be related to autoimmune diseases or genetic factors.

Symptoms of Menopause
 

  • Menstrual changes

    This is perhaps the first symptom of menopause that women are likely to notice as they approach the end of their fertile stage. For such women, menstrual periods may no longer be regular. They may be shorter or last longer. They may bleed less than usual or more. These are all normal changes and associated with menopause but excessive bleeding, periods which last for more than a week or come very close together are best discussed with a doctor.
     

  • Hot flashes

    A hot flash is a sudden feeling of heat in the upper part or all of your body and this constitutes one of the most common symptoms of female menopause. Red blotches may appear on the chest, back, and arms of a woman going through this and she may alternate between heavy sweating and cold shivering. Most hot flashes last between 30 seconds and 10 minutes; they can be mild or strong enough to wake someone up from sleep, in which case they are known as night sweats. Researchers are yet to fully understand the cause of hot flashes but suspect that it has to do with changing estrogen levels.
     

  • Sleep disturbance

    Insomnia is a major menopausal symptom. Women going through this transitional phase may find that cannot fall asleep easily or wake too early. Sometimes they may have trouble going back to sleep if they wake up in the middle of the night or too early. Yet another related symptom is night sweating which again leads to lack of sleep and contributes to daytime tiredness.
     

  • Vaginal dryness

    In the years leading up to the menopause, the level of estrogen starts to fall. Estrogen is an important female sex hormone and is responsible for keeping the vagina well lubricated for pleasurable sex. Falling estrogen levels during menopause thus might make the vagina and vulva slightly drier than previously - not only making sex more uncomfortable but also making a woman more prone to urinary tract infections.
     

  • Mood swings

    Women going through menopause are likely to be more moody or irritable than usual and find their emotional states veering from one extreme to another. While some connection with fluctuating hormone levels is again possible, other causes could be stress, negative self-image due to bodily changes, family changes such as growing children or aging parents, a history of depression and feeling of exhaustion.

References:

  1. National Institute of Health: National Institute on Aging – AgePage
     
  2. Mail Online - Now smoking causes infertility and early menopause!