What is menopause?
Menopause is a normal biological process that ends the period of a woman’s fertility. It is defined as the time in a woman’s life when her period has stopped. This is normally reached when she has not had her menstrual cycle for a period of 12 months. Menopause occurs because the woman’s ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. This normally occurs in your 40's or 50's. In the United States, the average age is 51.
Symptoms of menopause
Symptoms of menopause can begin several years before menopause actually happens. These symptoms include:
- A change in menstrual cycles (shorter or longer, lighter or heavier, with more or less time in between cycles)
- Hot flashes and/or night sweats
- Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- Vaginal dryness
- Mood swings
- Difficulty focusing
- Changes in hair production such as less hair on the scalp or more hair on the face
- Breast pain or soreness
- Feelings of anxiety or depression
- Urinary incontinence
What can cause menopause?
Although menopause typically results naturally, there are other processes that can cause menopause in women. These include:
- Total hysterectomy: This surgery removes your uterus and both ovaries, and causes menopause without any transitional stage. Your monthly periods will stop immediately. It is likely you will experience hot flashes and other signs and symptoms of menopause. These can be severe, as these changes occur suddenly as opposed to over several years.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy: Cancer therapies can induce menopause, causing symptoms that occur during or after the length of treatment. This halt to menstruation and fertility is not always permanent following chemotherapy.
- Primary ovarian insufficiency: Approximately 1 percent of women experience menopause before the age of 40. This is called premature menopause. This occurs when your ovaries fail to produce the normal levels of hormones. This could stem from factors such as genetics or autoimmune disease, however often no cause can be found. For this population, hormone therapy is normally recommended until the natural age of menopause occurs in order to protect the brain, heart and bones.
Risks associated with menopause
After menopause, your risk for certain types of medical conditions increase. These conditions include:
- Heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular, or heart) disease
- Osteoporosis (decreased bone density, increasing the risk of fractures)
- Urinary incontinence
- Sexual dysfunction such as decreased libido (desire for sexual activity) and vaginal dryness
- Weight gain
Treatment for menopause
Menopause normally needs no treatment, as it is a condition which occurs naturally as you age. However, in the instance you do need symptoms treated, there are options that are available to you:
- Hormone therapy: Estrogen therapy is very effective for relieving the symptoms of menopause, particularly hot flashes. If you still have your uterus, you’ll need progesterone as well as estrogen.
- Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs): Certain anti-depressants called SSRIs may decrease menopausal hot flashes. This treatment is useful for women who can’t take estrogen for health reasons or for women who need an anti-depressant for a mood disorder.
- Medications to prevent or treat osteoporosis: Depending on your need, your doctor may recommend medication to prevent or treat osteoporosis or weakening in your bones.