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Understanding Menopause

Menopause is a natural transition in a woman’s life, and every woman will go through it at some point. Although it’s absolutely normal and should not be viewed as a disease, menopause does come with some challenges. As women enter their senior years, menopause will definitely impact their lives.

Many women have questions about menopause and what it will mean for them. When does menopause start? How long does menopause last? What can you expect post-menopause? It can be helpful to know what to expect, so you aren’t surprised by the changes that occur during this important transition in a woman’s life.

What Is Menopause?

Almost all women are familiar with the word “menopause,” but what is menopause, exactly?

Menopause is a natural part of the aging process. At menopause, a woman’s reproductive system stops functioning. Over time, as a woman approaches menopause, the ovaries gradually reduce their production of the female hormone called estrogen. At a certain point, when estrogen levels are low enough, the ovaries stop releasing eggs, and the menstrual period no longer occurs. When this happens, the woman is no longer fertile and cannot get pregnant naturally.

When Does Menopause Start?

According to the World Health Organization, a woman has officially reached menopause when she has had no menstrual bleeding for one year. For example, if a woman has her last period when she’s 48, then she will officially reach menopause when she’s 49 after it’s been a full year since she last menstruated. However, when asked about the age when they went through menopause, many women will report the age that their last menstrual period occurred, rather than adding that extra year. This might be useful to keep in mind when you’re talking to a friend or a relative about menopause.

The specific timing of this transition is different for every woman. In the US, the average age of menopause is 51. This means that for the average woman, her last menstrual period occurs when she’s 50. However, it’s considered normal for a woman to go through menopause anytime in her 40s or 50s. If a woman is between the ages of 40 and 45 when it occurs, this is considered early menopause.

If a woman goes through menopause earlier than age 40, this is considered premature or early menopause. This can occur naturally, or it may be due to medical interventions. For example, if a woman’s ovaries are surgically removed, she will go into menopause immediately. Genetics has a strong influence on the age at which a woman goes through menopause, so a woman whose mother experienced premature menopause is more likely to experience this herself.

Various demographic factors, such as race, geographical area, and socioeconomic status, can influence the timing of menopause. For example, the average age of menopause in African American and Latina women in the US has been found to be about two years earlier than in white women. Women who smoke also tend to go through menopause earlier than nonsmokers.

How Long Does Menopause Last?

The period before reaching menopause is known as perimenopause. During this time, the menstrual period often becomes irregular, and missed periods are common. A woman may experience a variety of different symptoms of menopause during this period. These may include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Night sweats
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Weight gain
  • Thinning hair
  • Dry skin
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety and/or depression

These symptoms are related to the drop in estrogen levels that occurs as a woman approaches menopause. In fact, some doctors refer to these symptoms as “estrogen withdrawal symptoms.” Women can have symptoms for up to ten years before menopause.

It’s important to recognize that the experience is different for each woman. Some women hardly notice any symptoms of menopause, while others have severe symptoms that significantly interfere with their daily lives. Some women choose to use hormone replacement therapy to ease the transition. There are some risks associated with this treatment, and it isn’t right for all women. If you’re bothered by the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, talk with your doctor to learn more and get personalized advice. 

What Happens Post Menopause?

After menopause is over, many of the symptoms that occurred in perimenopause should disappear. In general, symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats will gradually decrease in frequency, and most women find that their mood stabilizes and they are less irritable after the menopausal transition is over. These symptoms usually disappear by four to five years after menopause occurs, although a few women continue to have symptoms for a little longer.

However, post-menopause, a woman will generally experience certain changes in her body that are permanent. These include:

  • A higher risk of cardiovascular disease (like heart attacks and strokes)
  • Loss of bone density
  • Slowed metabolism, leading to weight gain
  • Vaginal dryness, which can create discomfort during sexual activity
  • Urinary incontinence

Although these symptoms usually will not go away on their own, there is treatment available that can be helpful. For example, vaginal suppositories or creams containing estrogen can help with vaginal dryness. A woman who is bothered by these post-menopausal changes should discuss her concerns with her doctor to decide if these treatments are right for her.

Enjoying Life After Menopause

Although it’s a significant transition in a woman’s life, menopause is not an ending. In fact, a woman can expect to live about a third of her life after menopause. Many women describe these as the best years of their lives. 

Find our top 10 health and wellness tips for seniors here. For inspiration on how to live a vibrant and interesting life into your golden years, check out Senior Strong’s guides to traveling and gardening for seniors.

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