Menopause is a natural part of the aging process for most women. The age at which menopause occurs can range from as early as 40 years and as late as 55 years, with an average start at 51 years. Menopause is medically defined when a woman’s period has stopped for 12 consecutive months after the final menstrual period, indicating that she has reached the end of her reproductive years. While most women enter menopause as a natural biological process, other women enter menopause due to the loss of ovarian function following surgical removal of the ovaries, or as a result of chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.
Signs and Symptoms
As women enter into menopause, hormone levels begin to change, and the levels of estrogen and progesterone in their bodies start to go down. In addition to having changes in their menstrual cycle, women may start to have a variety of menopausal symptoms too. These may include:
Other symptoms such as mood changes, forgetfulness and depression may also be associated with menopause
Menopausal symptoms may be different for each woman. Regarding hot flashes, some women might have mild to moderate symptoms; some might have severe symptoms; and others might not experience any symptoms at all.
In most women, hot flashes (one episode usually lasts between a few seconds to a few minutes) decrease over time and eventually go away. According to the North American Menopause Society advisory panel, a group of medical and science experts in women’s health, most women experience hot flashes for 6 months to 2 years. Some reports, however, suggest that the average may be as high as 3-5 years. Moreover, for reasons unknown, some women report to have hot flashes for 10 years or longer after experiencing menopause. In contrast to hot flashes, vaginal symptoms may be progressive (get worse) with age.
Managing Your Menopause
Each woman experiences menopause differently and uniquely. Many women believe that menopause is simply something to suffer through, and often have a “tough it out” attitude. For women experiencing symptoms that are disrupting daily life and negatively affecting quality of life, there may be lifestyle changes that may help or medical treatment may be an option. Speaking with your healthcare provider about these issues is always your best bet.
Thinking about the Future
There are a couple of longer-term health concerns that can happen after menopause. Immediately following menopause, bone loss occurs rapidly and may result in osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures. Also after menopause, the risk of heart disease may go up.
Lifestyle approaches may help to lower your risk of heart disease and help prevent bone loss—some of these include:
A healthy, balanced diet, with adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D
Regular weight-bearing exercise
Wellness check-ups with your healthcare provider, which may include monitoring of bone density, blood pressure, and cholesterol
While it may not be easy to talk about menopause, remember that you are not alone. Many women have menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. A full physical examination and an open conversation with your healthcare provider can help you to assess symptoms that may be relieved with lifestyle changes or medical treatment.
The first step toward starting the conversation is to have a list of concerns and questions prepared for your appointment. Let your healthcare professional know the last time you had your period, your personal and family medical history, and all of your current medications. Describe your symptoms clearly and ask about your options. Ask where you can find more information. If you don’t understand an answer, ask again.
Here are some questions that may help you discuss the issue with your healthcare provider:
Could my symptoms be caused by a condition other than menopause?
How long should I expect these symptoms to last?
How might menopause affect my health long term?
Are my symptoms severe enough that I might need treatment?
Which treatment do you recommend based on my symptoms?
How can this treatment help me?
What benefits can I expect from treatment? What are the possible side effects?
What other lifestyle changes could be helpful for me?
Michael Louie, MD MPH MSc, was a Senior Medical Director in Women’s Health, and authored the article, Let’s Talk About Menopause during his employment at Pfizer. Dr. Louie obtained his medical degree at Cornell University Medical Center, and also has a Masters in Public Health from Columbia University and a Masters in Pharmaceutical Medicine from Hibernia College.
After reading this article, how likely are you to speak with your healthcare provider about managing your menopause symptoms?
Every day, an estimated 6,000 women in the United States reach menopause and may experience related symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, among many others. On The Dr. Phil Show, Pfizer’s Chief Medical Officer, Freda Lewis-Hall, M.D., and Dr. Phil meet Jeannie and her husband, Joe, and discuss steps women can take to tackle menopause symptoms and how partners can offer support.