While the menopause conversation is opening up about menopause, decades of mystery have surrounded it.
Consequently, lots of women have had more questions than answers! Not only that, historically there’s been a ton of confusing misinformation out there.
And that impacts us all because every woman will go through menopause if we live long enough. But it’s not just us, the men in our lives can be, and often are, affected too.
So, we compiled an easy-to-read list of facts as opposed to more well-known signs and symptoms.
(You can read about common signs here.)
Here are seven things everyone should know about menopause.
1. Technically, you’re in menopause when you have gone a full 12 months without a period
Before this, you are in premenopause and perimenopause (sometimes called the menopause transition). After this, you are in post-menopause for the rest of your life.
The last day of your last period means menopause has occurred but you will only know about it in retrospect.
According to the Australasian Menopause Society, most women become menopausal between the ages of 45 and 55. The average onset is approximately 51 years.
2. Menopause doesn’t happen overnight
Your periods don’t just come to a halt and voila you’re in menopause! Although it might appear like that for some people – everyone’s experience is different.
But, as a rule, it’s more of a gradual process.
The transition can take years – the Australian Menopause Society state 4-8 years.
A change in the flow or regularity of periods is usually one of the first signs. They may become more or less frequent and heavier or lighter.
Other changes such as hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, vaginal dryness and insomnia may begin to make their presence felt. In addition, you might notice a lower libido, weight gain or muscle and joint pain.
And some of those signs and symptoms can continue for some women in post-menopause as well.
A word on libido:
A study by Frontiers In Psychology found that factors such as emotional support and relationship satisfaction were important contributors to sexual function.
3. Most symptoms occur during perimenopause – psychological as well as physical
In fact, there are over 34 recognised signs of menopause.
This is due to hormonal changes particularly a reduction of progesterone and estrogen fluctuations as ovarian production declines. Therefore, hormone imbalances (and symptoms) can be common.
While hot flushes tend to be the most ‘infamous’ there are many others including those we’ve listed in No.2 above.
In addition, thinning hair, dry and/or itchy skin, cold sweats, allergies and frequent urinary tract infections can be felt
Menopause is the reverse of the hormonal chaos of puberty and who doesn’t remember the upheaval of adolescence?! As such, it’s the cessation of your reproductive years and everyone’s experience will be different.
Much the same as it was in our tweens and teens.
Some women won’t notice many symptoms, most will navigate some and for some people, these will be severe.
As a result, a lot of women will need support and understanding. That’s why we have our Facebook group!
4. Your body shape will probably change
While we still see some celebrities whose figures appear unchanged it’s almost a given that their waistlines will be thicker.
However, who can deny how great Helen Mirren looked in a headline-making bikini some years ago? If you didn’t see it here’s a link. And Elle McPherson (aka the body) still rocks a bikini.
Photo Credit: Elle MacPherson Instagram
There will always be those who defy nature but for most of us, evolution redistributes our body fat from the hips and thighs to the waist area. Also, adipose tissue (fat) becomes an estrogen source post-menopause.
This is a result of the decrease in estrogen levels however, weight gain is not usually due to menopause. However, the hormone imbalance of perimenopause / menopause can contribute in a big way.
On average a woman can expect to put on about two kilograms but any more than that is due to other factors.
These can also include ageing, high stress (cortisol), thyroid issues, and blood sugar.
As we grow older our metabolism slows down, lean muscle decreases and fat increases. And diminishing estrogen can lead to a reduction in insulin sensitivity and/or insulin resistance. If this happens the body will store fat that’s difficult to lose.
If weight gain is an issue for you, you will find these stories helpful:
5. Menopause can affect your health in many ways
Once we begin the menopause transition it pays to take a proactive approach to your health. Because menopause impacts our brain, bones, heart, blood pressure, insulin and thyroid.
Consequently, the risk of heart attack increases and we become very vulnerable to osteoporosis, heart disease and dementia.
Therefore, all midlife women should have regular health checks with their health professional.
Checking cholesterol, sugar and iron levels, kidney and liver function and a full thyroid panel including TSH, T3, T4 and antibodies is important.
As are blood pressure, mammograms, Pap smears, Dexa scans (for bone density) and contraception.
And of course, exercise is vital for helping to mitigate risks. It keeps bones strong and the heart and brain healthy.
The best exercise is always one you’ll do!
Dancing, walking, running, swimming, yoga, Pilates and always include some strength training in there too.
6. Menopause does NOT equal elderly!
One percent of women will be under 40 when entering menopause. This is known as premature menopause or Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (POI).
Premature menopause can due to a number of factors such as a smaller supply of eggs, autoimmune or some cancer treatments. In many cases, the reason is unknown.
A hysterectomy that includes ovarian removal will also cause premature or early menopause.
Another five percent of women may become menopausal between 40 and 45 and this is defined as early menopause.
7. Until you are officially in menopause you will still need contraception
Most of us have heard the old stories of ‘change of life’ babies and they happen. So, if that’s not something you’d relish contraception is a must until you’re post-menopause.
If you’re over 50 conventional wisdom says you should use birth control for 12 months after your last period (LMP).
However, if your last LMP occurs before the age of 50 then you are advised to continue with protection for two years.
(Yes, a little confusing when you won’t know if you’re LMP has occurred until 12 months later.)
7a. A blood test cannot definitively diagnose perimenopause.
While blood tests can be useful for ruling out other conditions and as guidelines of overall health they aren’t reliable for measuring perimenopause.
One caveat to this is if there is a chance you may be experiencing premature menopause.
Subsequently, menopause is diagnosed by menopausal symptoms and the cessation of menstrual periods.
The Australasian Menopause Society recommend using a symptom checker or you can take our quiz here.
Dr Jen Gunter, author of The Menopause Manifesto says:
“If you are 45 years or older, then medically-speaking menopause is not a surprise. Just as we don’t need a blood test to tell us if a 12-year-old with a growth spurt and her first period is in puberty, we don’t need blood tests to tell us if a 48-year-old woman with irregular periods is in the menopause transition.”
The Final Word
Menopause is the gateway to a new stage of life and the good news is there are many proven ways to manage symptoms.
“There’s a poem by American poet Jane Hirshfield that goes:
I moved my chair into the sun.
I sat in the sun.
The way hunger is moved when called fasting.
I live my life by that now and make the decision to have a different mindset about things if I need to.
You can apply that to the menopause or other tricky times of life; you think of the positives and move your chair into the sun.”
Pictured above posing with her novel – Because Of You. (It’s great – emotional, moving and surprisingly non-comedy.)
Photo Credit: Dawn French Twitter