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Menopause is defined as occurring 12 months after your last menstrual period and marks the end of menstrual cycles. Menopause can happen in your 40s or 50s, but the average age is 51 in the United States.
Menopause is a natural biological process. Although it also ends fertility, you can stay healthy, vital and sexual. Some women feel relieved because they no longer need to worry about pregnancy.
Even so, the physical symptoms, such as hot flashes, and emotional symptoms of menopause may disrupt your sleep, lower your energy or for some women trigger anxiety or feelings of sadness and loss.
Don’t hesitate to seek treatment for symptoms that bother you. Many effective treatments are available, from lifestyle adjustments to hormone therapy.
- Menopause is defined as the absence of menstrual periods for 12 months. It is the time in a woman’s life when the function of the ovaries ceases.
- The process of menopause does not occur overnight, but rather is a gradual process. This so-called perimenopausal transition period is a different experience for each woman.
- The average age of menopause is 51 years old, but menopause may occur as early as the 30s or as late as the 60s. There is no reliable lab test to predict when a woman will experience menopause.
- The age at which a woman starts having menstrual periods is not related to the age of menopause onset.
- Symptoms of menopause can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, hot flashes, vaginal and urinary symptoms, and mood changes.
- Complications that women may develop after menopause include osteoporosis and heart disease.
- Treatments for menopause are customized for each woman.
- Treatments are directed toward alleviating uncomfortable or distressing symptoms.
What Are the Signs Menopause?
Women may have different signs or symptoms at menopause. That’s because estrogen is used by many parts of your body. As you have less estrogen, you could have various symptoms. Here are the most common changes you might notice at midlife. Some may be part of aging rather than directly related to menopause.
Change in your period. This might be what you notice first. Your periods may no longer be regular. They may be shorter or last longer. You might bleed less than usual or more. These are all normal changes, but to make sure there isn’t a problem, see your doctor if:
- Your periods come very close together
- You have heavy bleeding
- You have spotting
- Your periods last more than a week
- Your periods resume after no bleeding for more than a year
Hot flashes. Many women have hot flashes, which can last a few years after menopause. They may be related to changing estrogen levels. A hot flash is a sudden feeling of heat in the upper part or all of your body. Your face and neck become flushed. Red blotches may appear on your chest, back, and arms. Heavy sweating and cold shivering can follow. Flashes can be very mild or strong enough to wake you from your sleep (called night sweats). Most hot flashes last between 30 seconds and 10 minutes.
Vaginal health and bladder control. Your vagina may get drier. This could make sexual intercourse uncomfortable. Or, you could have other health problems, such as vaginal or bladder infections. Some women also find it hard to hold their urine long enough to get to the bathroom. This loss of bladder control is called incontinence. You may have a sudden urge to urinate, or urine may leak during exercise, sneezing, or laughing.
Sleep. Around midlife, some women start having trouble getting a good night’s sleep. Maybe you can’t fall asleep easily, or you wake too early. Night sweats might wake you up. You might have trouble falling back to sleep if you wake up during the night.
Sex. You may find that your feelings about sex are changing. You could be less interested. Or, you could feel freer and sexier after menopause. After 1 full year without a period, you can no longer become pregnant. But remember, you could still be at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as gonorrhea or even HIV/AIDS. You increase your risk for an STD if you are having sex with more than one person or with someone who is having sex with others. If so, make sure your partner uses a condom each time you have sex.
Mood changes. You might find yourself more moody or irritable around the time of menopause. Scientists don’t know why this happens. It’s possible that stress, family changes such as growing children or aging parents, a history of depression, or feeling tired could be causing these mood changes.
Your body seems different. Your waist could get larger. You could lose muscle and gain fat. Your skin could get thinner. You might have memory problems, and your joints and muscles could feel stiff and achy. Are these a result of having less estrogen or just related to growing older? Experts don’t know the answer.
Causes of Menopause
Menopause can result from:
- Natural decline of reproductive hormones. As you approach your late 30s, your ovaries start making less estrogen and progesterone the hormones that regulate menstruation and your fertility declines.
In your 40s, your menstrual periods may become longer or shorter, heavier or lighter, and more or less frequent, until eventually on average, by age 51 you have no more periods.
- Hysterectomy. A hysterectomy that removes your uterus but not your ovaries (partial hysterectomy) usually doesn’t cause immediate menopause. Although you no longer have periods, your ovaries still release eggs and produce estrogen and progesterone.
But surgery that removes both your uterus and your ovaries (total hysterectomy and bilateral oophorectomy) does cause menopause, without any transitional phase. Your periods stop immediately, and you’re likely to have hot flashes and other menopausal signs and symptoms, which can be severe, as these hormonal changes occur abruptly rather than over several years.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These cancer therapies can induce menopause, causing symptoms such as hot flashes during or shortly after the course of treatment. The halt to menstruation (and fertility) is not always permanent following chemotherapy, so birth control measures may still be desired.
- Primary ovarian insufficiency. About 1 percent of women experience menopause before age 40 (premature menopause). Menopause may result from primary ovarian insufficiency when your ovaries fail to produce normal levels of reproductive hormones stemming from genetic factors or autoimmune disease. But often no cause can be found. For these women, hormone therapy is typically recommended at least until the natural age of menopause in order to protect the brain, heart and bones.
Pharmaceutical therapies for menopause
Antidepressant medications: The class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and related medications have been shown to be effective in controlling the symptoms of hot flashes in up to 60% of women. Specifically, venlafaxine (Effexor), a drug related to the SSRIs, and the SSRIs fluoxetine(Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil),desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), and citalopram(Celexa) have all been shown to decrease the severity of hot flashes in some women. However,antidepressant medications may be associated with side effects, including decreased libido or sexual dysfunction.
Other medications: Other prescription medications have been shown to provide some relief for hot flashes, although their specific purpose is not the treatment of hot flashes. All of these may have side effects, and their use should be discussed with and monitored by a doctor. Some of these medications that have been shown to help relieve hot flashes include the antiseizure drug gabapentin (Neurontin) and clonidine (Catapres), a drug used to treat high blood pressure.
How Can I Stay Healthy After Menopause?
Staying healthy after menopause may mean making some changes in the way you live.
- Don’t smoke. If you do use any type of tobacco, stop it’s never too late to benefit from quitting smoking.
- Eat a healthy diet, low in fat, high in fiber, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods, as well as all the important vitamins and minerals.
- Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet or with vitamin/mineral supplements if recommended by your doctor.
- Learn what your healthy weight is, and try to stay there.
- Do weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, jogging, or dancing, at least 3 days each week for healthy bones. But try to be physically active in other ways for your general health.
Other things to remember:
- Take medicine if your doctor prescribes it for you, especially if it is for health problems you cannot see or feel—for example, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or osteoporosis.
- Use a water-based vaginal lubricant (not petroleum jelly) or a vaginal estrogen cream or tablet to help with vaginal discomfort.
- Get regular pelvic and breast exams, Pap tests, and mammograms. You should also be checked for colon and rectal cancer and for skin cancer. Contact your doctor right away if you notice a lump in your breast or a mole that has changed.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) has publications on many of these topics. See For More Information to learn how to order your free copies.
Menopause is not a disease that has to be treated. But you might need help if symptoms like hot flashes bother you. Here are some ideas that have helped some women:
- Try to keep track of when hot flashes happen a diary can help. You might be able to use this information to find out what triggers your flashes and then avoid those triggers.
- When a hot flash starts, try to go somewhere cool.
- If night sweats wake you, sleep in a cool room or with a fan on.
- Dress in layers that you can take off if you get too warm.
- Use sheets and clothing that let your skin “breathe.”
- Have a cold drink (water or juice) when a flash is starting.
You could also talk to your doctor about whether there are any medicines to manage hot flashes. A few drugs that are approved for other uses (for example, certain antidepressants) seem to be helpful to some women.
Complications of Menopause
After menopause, your risk of certain medical conditions increases. Examples include:
- Heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease. When your estrogen levels decline, your risk of cardiovascular disease increases. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women as well as in men. So it’s important to get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet and maintain a normal weight. Ask your doctor for advice on how to protect your heart, such as how to reduce your cholesterol or blood pressure if it’s too high.
- Osteoporosis. This condition causes bones to become brittle and weak, leading to an increased risk of fractures. During the first few years after menopause, you may lose bone density at a rapid rate, increasing your risk of osteoporosis. Postmenopausal women with osteoporosis are especially susceptible to fractures of their hips, wrists and spine.
- Urinary incontinence. As the tissues of your vagina and urethra lose elasticity, you may experience frequent, sudden, strong urges to urinate, followed by an involuntary loss of urine (urge incontinence), or the loss of urine with coughing, laughing or lifting (stress incontinence). You may have urinary tract infections more often.
Strengthening pelvic floor muscles with Kegel exercises and using a topical vaginal estrogen may help relieve symptoms of incontinence.
- Sexual function. Vaginal dryness from decreased moisture production and loss of elasticity can cause discomfort and slight bleeding during sexual intercourse. Also, decreased sensation may reduce your desire for sexual activity (libido).
Water-based vaginal moisturizers and lubricants may help. Choose products that don’t contain glycerin because women who are sensitive to this chemical may experience burning and irritation. If a vaginal lubricant isn’t enough, many women benefit from the use of local vaginal estrogen treatment, available as a vaginal cream, tablet or ring.
- Weight gain. Many women gain weight during the menopausal transition and after menopause because metabolism slows. You may need to eat less and exercise more, just to maintain your current weight.