By Marie Suszynski
Here’s what you need to know as you get ready to say ‘so long’ to your period.
Your body goes through changes that affect everything from your bones to your heart.
Menopause isn’t exactly a time in life women look forward to: Hormone changes can bring on hot flashes, sleep problems, and more. But once you’re well-versed in menopause facts, you can put together a plan to sail through this transition in stride.
“I see a lot of menopausal patients, and one of the first things I try to help them understand is that it’s a natural part of life,” says Karen Deighan, MD, associate professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the Loyola University Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Maywood, Illinois. “Attitude and outlook are huge in terms of managing it and taking it on.”
Every woman will experience menopause in her own way. “You can’t compare how you feel with someone else,” says Rebecca Papamihalakis, a nurse practitioner at the Community Care Network-Community Care Center for Women in Highland, Indiana.
Here are 10 basic facts about menopause women should know:
1. You’ve hit menopause after you go 12 months without a period. Because periods can be irregular in the years leading up to menopause, you won’t know you’ve reached it until you’ve gone a year without menstruating. Menopause means your ovaries have stopped producing estrogen, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
2. On average, menopause occurs around age 51. Most women will have their last period sometime between ages 45 and 55, reports the North American Menopause Society (NAMS).
3. Menopause before 40 is considered early menopause. This might run in your family or could be a result of a medical condition, such as an abnormal thyroid or a rheumatic disease such as lupus. Chemotherapy and radiation can also damage the ovaries and bring on early menopause, NAMS notes. If you have your ovaries removed as part of a medical treatment, you will begin early menopause right away, says Dr. Deighan
4. The years leading up to your last period are called perimenopause. Fluctuating estrogen levels can begin in your thirties or forties, during the transition from menstruating regularly to not menstruating at all, according to ACOG. The most common sign is an irregular period, meaning your cycles may become longer or shorter or become heavier or lighter, says Deighan. You might also skip periods.
5. Symptoms include hot flashes and weight gain. The most well-known symptom of menopause, the hot flash, is an intense feeling of warmth that can last a few seconds or several minutes, according to NAMS. When this happens while you’re sleeping, it’s called night sweats. Other possible symptoms of menopause include sleep problems, vaginal dryness, mood changes, headaches, and problems with memory.
Some women experience these symptoms during perimenopause, while others don’t experience them until after they’ve stopped menstruating, Papamihalakis says. Some symptoms, such as hot flashes and memory issues, may go away after you reach menopause, NAMS says
6. Menopause leads to bone loss. This is due to the loss of estrogen. In fact, women may experience as much as a 20 percent drop in bone density in the five to seven years after menopause, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF). “Osteoporosis is a silent and serious disease,” Papamihalakis says, but it is preventable. Get calcium in your diet, add weight-bearing exercise to your routine, check your vitamin D levels, and ask your doctor to check your bone density according to NOF guidelines, recommends Lauren Streicher, MD, Everyday Health columnist and associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
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7. Risk for heart disease rises after menopause. Estrogen offers protection against heart attack and stroke. The drop in estrogen during menopause means your risk of heart disease may increase, especially if you have high cholesterol and high blood pressure and aren’t active. This is another reason to make healthy habits a top priority.
8. Hormone therapy can help with menopause symptoms. Formerly called hormone replacement therapy, HRT, taking estrogen and progesterone, or just estrogen if your uterus has been removed, can help relieve symptoms, like hot flashes. But using hormone therapy long-term may raise the risk for heart attack, blood clots, and stroke. A large landmark study done in 2002 found that estrogen and progestin raised the risk for breast cancer. Review your individual risks and the pros and cons of hormone therapy with your doctor before embarking on this treatment.
On the other hand, research also found that combination hormone therapy can lower risk for bone fractures and colorectal cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “I absolutely encourage [patients] to consider hormone therapy for a limited period of time,” Deighan says. Six months to two years of therapy can help women get through the worst of the symptoms, she adds.
9. Lifestyle boosts can help you feel better. Exercise helps to slow the loss of bone after menopause and keep your weight in check, according to ACOG. It also increases natural endorphins, which could help with mood changes and irritability, Deighan says. Other healthy habits, such as eating well, are also crucial at this time of life.
10. No more periods can be freeing. After decades of monthly periods, it can feel good to say goodbye, especially if they were heavy or painful. Sometimes problems like fibroids and endometriosis get resolved with menopause, Deighan says. Some women also enjoy their relationships more once they no longer have to worry about pregnancy.
Focusing on these and other positives and viewing menopause as a normal part of life should help you breeze through these years.