When we talk about the symptoms of early menopause we need to differentiate it from usual menopause. Why? Because they present a different set of circumstances.
What is menopause?
Menopause means final menstrual period and the average age for it to occur under usual circumstances is 51/52.
During this time the ovaries stop producing eggs, estrogen levels drop and a woman comes to the end of her fertile years.
Menopause is officially defined as 12 months with no period.
Firstly comes perimenopause aka the menopause transition which begins anywhere from late 30s through to early to mid-40s.
Given that, it’s a gradual process and perimenopause is when most symptoms occur. Basically, ovarian estrogen goes through fluctuations which sends hormone ratios awry and voila! Consequently, symptoms such as mood swings, hot flushes, and scant or heavy periods appear.
Indeed, perimenopause doesn’t happen overnight – it lasts an average of four years but can continue for over a decade.
However, for around 10% of women, menopause – the final menstrual period and end of fertility – comes early.
And while menopause at any age is life-changing, early menopause is even more so.
This is especially true if your plans include giving birth to children. Not to mention being confronted by the increased health risk factors of middle age.
What is early menopause?
When people refer to early menopause, oftentimes they’re talking about premature menopause.
To clarify, early menopause (EM) occurs between 40 and 45. It affects 12% of women.
Furthermore, early menopause can occur naturally or as a result of chemotherapy or ovarian surgery.
In light of this, The Australasian Menopause Society, say “There is no evidence that early menopause is brought on by the use of oral contraceptives, fertility drugs or artificial hormones in the environment.”
Although smoking or a family history of early menopause is associated with earlier onset menopause and symptoms of early menopause.
What is premature menopause?
And if POI occurs spontaneously, it’s given the technical term premature ovarian failure or primary ovarian insufficiency.
Indeed, the Australasian Menopause Society state that primary ovarian failure affects about 1 in 100 or 4% of women.
Comparatively, approximately 8 in 100 women will experience premature menopause due to chemotherapy or surgery.
The heartbreak of early menopause
One of the most distressing and heartbreaking aspects of early menopause is that it can happen unexpectedly.
Hence there is no known reason why, albeit family history, smoking, autoimmune disease and socioeconomic factors can play a role.
Then there are women who experience POI or early menopause as a result of the surgical removal of both ovaries, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Consequently, this comes with additional emotional fallout.
Therefore, it’s important to realise that any woman who is diagnosed with early or premature menopause needs gentle support and understanding.
How is early menopause diagnosed?
A diagnosis of early or premature menopause is usually made based on a lack of menstrual periods for at least four months according to askearlymenopause.org. In addition, two blood tests show reproductive levels are in the menopausal range in women under the age of 45 years.
It must be noted that this is different from usual menopause which is said to have occurred when a woman has not had a period for 12 months. In this case, blood tests aren’t needed for diagnosis. In fact, they’re considered unreliable during perimenopause.
What’s more, menopause is not usually considered a cause for periods stopping in young women. For this reason, diagnosis is often delayed.
What are the symptoms of early menopause?
Healthtalk Australia tells us that the most characteristic symptoms of early menopause are irregular or absent periods.
For example, some women may only experience their periods stopping even though they’re not pregnant. In a similar fashion, others may not be able to fall pregnant. In either case, it can come as a rude and deeply distressing shock.
But generally, the symptoms of early menopause are the same or similar to age-related menopause:
- Mood swings
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Joint pain
- Vaginal dryness
- Sleep disruption
- Cognitive difficulties
Ask Early Menopause
Researchers at Australia’s Monash University have launched an evidence-based app and website for women called Ask Early Menopause.
Women tell us “Early menopause changes you. You physically change, you emotionally change, you psychologically change”.
The app was developed by women for women so as to help women in early and premature menopause. It includes early menopause expert input, women’s stories, symptoms of early menopause, evidence-based information and a personalised dashboard.
Symptoms of early menopause may or may not make an appearance. As a result, diagnosis can be difficult.
Nevertheless, once a diagnosis is made it can be a time fraught with emotion. Young women must come to terms with an abrupt end to their fertility and increased risk of conditions such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
Rhonda Garad, Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow and Adjunct Associate Clinical Professor and Endocrinologist, Amanda Vincent from Monash University developed the Ask Early app. In an article they wrote for The Conversation they say:
“Unfortunately, there is no cure for early menopause and no way to restore egg production. Instead, the focus of treatment is on managing symptoms and the increased risks of bone and heart disease after menopause.
If you have not had a period for 4-6 months (and you are not pregnant or on treatment that stops periods) then you should see your doctor about whether you may be experiencing early menopause or premature menopause.”
Tip: In view of this, those who live with early or premature menopause ask people to think twice before asking younger women if they’ve had children or are thinking of it.
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