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What Is Menopause?

What to expect and how to address symptoms of menopause

NIH/National Institute on Aging

Menopause, or the “change of life,” is different for each woman.  Some may experience hot flashes, others may have trouble sleeping and some may have no symptoms at all.

Menopause is a normal part of life,  like puberty.  It is the time of your last period, but symptoms can begin several years earlier.

Some symptoms of menopause can last for months or years after. Changing levels of estrogen and progesterone, which are two female hormones made in your ovaries, might lead to these symptoms.

This time of change is known as the menopausal transition, but it is also called perimenopause by many women and their doctors. It can begin several years before your last menstrual period. Perimenopause lasts for one year after your last period. After a full year without a period, you can say you have been “through menopause.”

Postmenopause follows menopause and lasts the rest of your life.

The average age of a woman having her last period, menopause, is 51. But, some women have their last period in their forties, and some have it later in their fifties.

Smoking can lead to early menopause. So can some types of operations. For example, surgery to remove your uterus (called a hysterectomy) will make your periods stop, and that’s menopause. But you might not have menopause symptoms like hot flashes right then because if your ovaries are untouched, they still make hormones. In time, when your ovaries start to make less estrogen, menopause symptoms could start. But, sometimes both ovaries are removed (called an oophorectomy), usually along with your uterus. That’s menopause too. In this case, menopause symptoms can start right away, no matter what age you are, because your body has lost its main supply of estrogen.

What are the signs of menopause?

Women may have different signs or symptoms at menopause. That’s because estrogen is used by many parts of your body. So, as you have less estrogen, you could have various symptoms. Here are the most common changes you might notice at midlife. Some may be part of aging rather than menopause.
Change in your period. This might be what you notice first. Your periods may no longer be regular. They may be shorter or last longer. You might bleed less than usual or more. These are all normal changes, but to make sure there isn’t a problem, see your doctor if:

  • Your periods come very close together.
  • You have heavy bleeding.
  • You have spotting.
  • Your periods last more than a week.

Hot flashes. Many women have hot flashes around the time of menopause. They may be related to changing estrogen levels. Hot flashes may last a few years after menopause. A hot flash is a sudden feeling of heat in the upper part or all of your body. Your face and neck become flushed. Red blotches may appear on your chest, back, and arms. Heavy sweating and cold shivering can follow. Flashes can be very mild or strong enough to wake you from your sleep (called night sweats). Most hot flashes last between 30 seconds and 10 minutes.

Problems with your vagina and bladder. Changing estrogen levels can cause your genital area to get drier and thinner. This could make sexual intercourse uncomfortable. Or, you could have more vaginal or urinary infections. Some women find it hard to hold their urine long enough to get to the bathroom. Sometimes urine leaks during exercise, sneezing, coughing, laughing, or running.

Sleep. Around midlife, some women start having trouble getting a good night’s sleep. Maybe you can’t fall asleep easily, or you wake too early. Night sweats might wake you up. You might have trouble falling back to sleep if you wake during the night.

Sex. You may find that your feelings about sex are changing. You could be less interested. Or, you could feel freer and sexier after menopause. After one full year without a period, you can no longer become pregnant. But you could still be at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as gonorrhea or even HIV/AIDS. You increase your risk for an STD if you are having sex with more than one person or with someone who is having sex with others. If so, make sure your partner uses a condom each time you have sex.

Mood changes. You might find yourself more moody or irritable around the time of menopause. Scientists don’t know why this happens. It’s possible that stress, family changes such as growing children or aging parents, a history of depression, or feeling tired could be causing these mood changes.

Your body seems different. Your waist could get larger. You could lose muscle and gain fat. Your skin could get thinner. You might have memory problems, and your joints and muscles could feel stiff and achy. Are these a result of having less estrogen or just related to growing older? Experts don’t know the answer.

What about my heart and bones?

Two common health problems can start to happen at menopause, and you might not even notice.

Osteoporosis.  Day in and day out, your body is busy breaking down old bone and replacing it with new healthy bone. Estrogen helps control bone loss, and losing estrogen around the time of menopause causes women to lose more bone than is replaced. In time, bones can become weak and break easily. This condition is called osteoporosis. Talk to your doctor to see if you should have a bone density test to find out if you are at risk. Your doctor can also suggest ways to prevent or treat osteoporosis.

Heart disease. After menopause, women are more likely to have heart disease. Changes in estrogen levels may be part of the cause. But, so is getting older. As you age, you may gain weight and develop other problems, like high blood pressure. These could put you at greater risk for heart disease. Be sure to have your blood pressure and levels of triglycerides, fasting blood glucose, and LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol checked regularly. Talk to your health care provider to find out what you should do to protect your heart.

How to stay healthy after menopause

Staying healthy after menopause may mean making some changes in the way you live.

  • Don’t smoke. If you do use any type of tobacco, stop—it’s never too late to benefit from quitting smoking.
  • Eat a healthy diet, low in fat, high in fiber, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods, as well as all the important vitamins and minerals.
  • Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D—in your diet or with vitamin/mineral supplements.
  • Learn what your healthy weight is, and try to stay there.
  • Do weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, jogging, or dancing, at least 3 days each week for healthy bones. But try to be physically active in other ways for your general health.

Other things to remember

  • Take medicine if your doctor prescribes it for you, especially if it is for health problems you cannot see or feel—for example, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or osteoporosis.
  • Use a water-based vaginal lubricant (not petroleum jelly) or a vaginal estrogen cream or tablet to help with vaginal discomfort.
  • Get regular pelvic and breast exams, Pap tests, and mammograms. You should also be checked for colon and rectal cancer and for skin cancer. Contact your doctor right away if you notice a lump in your breast or a mole that has changed.

Menopause is not a disease that has to be treated. But you might need help if symptoms like hot flashes bother you. Here are some ideas that have helped some

  • Try to keep track of when hot flashes happen — a diary can help. You might be able to use this information to find out what triggers your flashes and then avoid those triggers.
  • When a hot flash starts, try to go somewhere cool.
  • If night sweats wake you, sleep in a cool room or with a fan on.
  • Dress in layers that you can take off if you get too warm.
  • Use sheets and clothing that let your skin “breathe.”
  • Have a cold drink (water or juice) when a flash is starting.

You could also talk to your doctor about whether there are any medicines to manage hot flashes. A few drugs that are approved for other uses, for example, certain anti-depressants, seem to be helpful to some women.

Does hormone therapy work? 

These days you hear a lot about whether you should use hormones to help relieve some menopause symptoms. It’s hard to know what to do, although there is some information to help you.

During perimenopause, some doctors suggest birth control pills to help with very heavy, frequent, or unpredictable menstrual periods. These pills might also help with symptoms like hot flashes, as well as prevent pregnancy.

If you are bothered by symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, or vaginal dryness, your doctor might suggest taking estrogen (as well as progesterone, if you still have a uterus). This is known as menopausal hormone therapy (MHT). Some people still call it hormone replacement therapy or HRT. Taking these hormones will probably help with menopause symptoms. It also can prevent the bone loss that can happen at menopause.

Menopausal hormone therapy has risks. That is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests that women who want to try MHT to manage their hot flashes or vaginal dryness use the lowest dose that works for the shortest time it’s needed. Your symptoms may come back when you stop taking hormones.

Right now, there is a lot still to learn about taking hormones.

Phytoestrogens are estrogen-like substances found in some cereals, vegetables, legumes (including soy), and herbs. They might work in the body like a weak form of estrogen. Researchers are trying to discover whether phytoestrogens relieve some symptoms of menopause and if they might also carry some risks. Be sure to tell your doctor if you decide to try eating a lot more foods that contain phytoestrogens or to try using an herbal supplement. Any food or over-the-counter product that you use for its drug-like effects could change how other prescribed drugs work or cause an overdose.

Check with your doctor

If you are having bothersome symptoms, talk to your doctor for help deciding how to best manage menopause. You can see a gynecologist, geriatrician, general practitioner or internist. Make sure the doctor knows your medical history and your family medical history. This includes whether you are at risk for heart disease, osteoporosis and breast cancer.

It may be helpful to remember that your decision is never final. You can — and should — review it with your doctor during your yearly checkup. Your needs may change over time, and so might what we know about menopause.

Based on content provided by the NIH/National Institute on Aging from its "AgePage" series. Originally published by the National Institute on Aging on April, 2008.

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