What Is Menopause?
Menopause is a normal condition that all women experience as they age. The term "menopause" can describe any of the changes a woman goes through either just before or after she stops menstruating, marking the end of her reproductive period.
What Causes Menopause?
A woman is born with a finite number of eggs, which are stored in the ovaries. The ovaries also make the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which control menstruation and ovulation. Menopause happens when the ovaries no longer release an egg every month and menstruation stops.
Menopause is considered a normal part of aging when it happens after the age of 40. But some women can go through menopause early, either as a result of surgery, such as hysterectomy, or damage to the ovaries, such as from chemotherapy. Menopause that happens before 40, regardless of the cause, is called premature menopause.
How Does Natural Menopause Happen?
Natural menopause is not brought on by any type of medical or surgical treatment. The process is gradual and has three stages:
- Perimenopause . This typically begins several years before menopause, when the ovaries gradually make less estrogen. Perimenopause lasts up until menopause, the point when the ovaries stop releasing eggs. In the last 1 to 2 years of perimenopause, the drop in estrogen quickens. At this stage, many women have menopause symptoms.
- Menopause. This is the point when it's been a year since a woman last had her last menstrual period. At this stage, the ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and making most of their estrogen.
- Postmenopause. These are the years after menopause. During this stage, menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes ease for most women. But health risks related to the loss of estrogen rise as the woman ages.
What Conditions Cause Premature Menopause?
Premature menopause can be the result of genetics, autoimmune disorders, or medical procedures. Other conditions that may cause early menopause include:
- Premature ovarian failure. Normally, the ovaries make both estrogen and progesterone. Changes in the levels of these two hormones happen when the ovaries, for unknown reasons, prematurely stop releasing eggs. When this happens before the age of 40, it's called premature ovarian failure. Unlike premature menopause, premature ovarian failure is not always permanent.
Most women approaching menopause will have hot flashes, a sudden feeling of warmth that spreads over the upper body, often with blushing and some sweating. The severity of hot flashes varies from mild in most women to severe in others.
Other common symptoms around the time of menopause include:
- Irregular or skipped periods
- Mood swings
- Racing heart
- Joint and muscle aches and pains
- Changes in libido (sex drive)
- Vaginal dryness
- Bladder control problems
Not all women get all of these symptoms.
How Do I Know When I'm Going Through Menopause?
Either you'll suspect the approach of menopause on your own, or your doctor will, based on symptoms you've told her about. To help figure it out, your doctor can do a certain blood test.
It also helps if you keep track of your periods and chart them as they become irregular. Your menstrual pattern will be an added clue to your doctor about whether you're premenopausal.
What Long-Term Health Problems Are Tied to Menopause?
The loss of estrogen linked with menopause has been tied to a number of health problems that become more common as women age.
After menopause, women are more likely to have:
- Heart disease
- A poorly working bladder and bowel
- Greater risk of Alzheimer's disease
- Poor skin elasticity (increased wrinkling)
- Poor muscle power and tone
- Some weakening in vision, such as from cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye) and macular degeneration (breakdown of the tiny spot in the center of the retina that is the center of vision)
A number of treatments can help lower risks that are linked with these conditions.