If you are a woman in your mid-forties or early fifties, you may feel like your body is changing, but you may not know what is happening.
Maybe your periods are not the same. You don’t sleep as well as you always have. Or your waist is getting thicker.
You may not be paying much attention to these changes until one day, if you’re like many women, it happens—a hot flash! One minute you feel perfectly comfortable, and the next you are sweating and flushed—for no apparent reason.
You may be surprised. You may feel “too young.”
You ask yourself—could this be the start of my transition through menopause?
What is Menopause?
Menopause, also known as "the change” or “change of life,” is a normal part of a woman’s life. It is a point in time—the last menstrual cycle, the last period. The years leading up to that last period, when women might be experiencing menopausal symptoms like changes in their monthly cycles or hot flashes, are called the menopausal transition. It is a common mistake to use the word menopause to describe this whole transition.
The menopausal transition occurs at a time in a woman’s reproductive life when the production of estrogen and progesterone, two hormones made by the ovaries, may vary dramatically and unpredictably. The ovaries are two small glands found on either side of the top of the uterus or womb. Before menopause, they hold eggs, one or more of which are released during a menstrual cycle. If the egg then joins with sperm following sexual intercourse and attaches itself inside the uterus, pregnancy is the result. Ovaries also produce chemical substances known as hormones, which travel through the blood to other tissues to control how cells work. One of these, estrogen, has effects on cells in many parts of the body including the reproductive organs, brain, heart and blood vessels, and bone.
Physical Changes Associated with Menopause
Usually in her forties, a woman’s body starts changing. Some differences, such as a thickening waist, can happen because she is getting older, but others, like vaginal dryness, are caused by changes in her hormone levels. As a woman ages and especially as she gets closer to menopause, her ovaries get smaller. This time of changes in hormone levels and menstrual cycles is called the menopausal transition. You might also hear it called perimenopause. It usually lasts several years until 12 months after your last period. Once a woman has gone a full 12 months without a period, she can be fairly sure that she has been through menopause and is now in postmenopause. Postmenopause lasts the rest of a woman’s life.
Going through menopause is a little like driving on an unfamiliar, twisting road with an unclear destination. You may not be sure of all that is happening, where you are going, or what’s coming next. In fact, you won’t realize you have reached your destination (menopause) until you are past it and see it in your rearview mirror.
When Menopause Begins
The average age of menopause is 51. That means that almost half of all women have their last period and reach menopause before that age, and some women may not have even started perimenopause yet.
It’s not easy to know when you are in the menopausal transition. Menopausal symptoms, along with a physical examination, medical history, and maybe some blood tests, may provide useful clues. But, it is not possible to correctly predict when a woman’s final period will be. Your doctor could test the amount of estrogen in your blood or the level of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone), another hormone that changes at this time. But, levels of both estrogen and FSH normally go up and down during your menstrual cycle. So, these test results alone cannot be used to predict or confirm menopause.
Levels of two other female hormones, progesterone and luteinizing hormone (LH), also rise and fall during your menstrual cycle. Progesterone levels drop after menopause, and LH levels go up.
Even though your monthly periods are not regular anymore, you can get pregnant during the menopausal transition. In fact, the irregular periods common in menopause make it harder to predict when an ovary is releasing an egg, the time when sexual intercourse is most likely to result in a pregnancy.
Do not assume that a couple of missed periods mean you are beginning the menopausal transition. Check with your doctor to see if you are pregnant or if there is another medical cause for your missed periods.
Conditions Similar to Natural Menopause
At any age before natural menopause, an operation to remove both ovaries or the uterus results in “surgical menopause.” The medical term for the operation is a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus) or bilateral oophorectomy (surgery to remove both ovaries). Removing either both ovaries or the uterus stops monthly periods right away. If the surgeon removes the uterus but is able to leave one or both ovaries, estrogen and progesterone might still continue to be made for a while longer. However, research suggests that, after a hysterectomy, the ovaries may stop making these hormones sooner than might normally be expected.
A woman who has either a hysterectomy or both ovaries removed often faces more intense menopausal symptoms than a woman who reaches menopause naturally. Removing both ovaries abruptly cuts off hormone production. If you are having this surgery, discuss how to manage your symptoms with your doctor before your operation. Without treatment, symptoms may begin soon after surgery. Surgical menopause also puts you at early risk for bone loss and heart disease. Stay in touch with your doctor as you recover.
Usually menopause happens naturally, but some women develop symptoms of menopause and stop having menstrual cycles much earlier than expected. Before age 40, a menopause-like condition can happen for no known reason, or it can be caused by radiation treatment, some medicines like those used in chemotherapy, an autoimmunity (some of a woman’s own body cells attacking her ovary or ovaries), or genetic errors. Radiation can make your ovaries stop working, as can some treatments like chemotherapy for cancer.
In the past when menopausal symptoms developed before age 40, it was referred to as “premature menopause.” However, the term “premature menopause” is no longer considered scientifically accurate. That’s because some women with this condition have ovaries that produce hormones irregularly and a return of menstrual periods, and some can even become pregnant after the diagnosis. The terms “premature ovarian failure” or “primary ovarian insufficiency” are now used to describe this condition. Women with this problem may experience symptoms of menopause like hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
Based on the NIH/National Institute on Aging publication, "Menopause: Time for a Change."