Say the word "menopause" and a lot of women are filled with anxiety. How will it affect my sleep? My mood? My sex drive? And (ugh!) my weight? The first step to squashing that anxiety is studying up on some essential menopause facts.
Menopause, known as the "change of life," marks the end of a woman's reproductive years. As we age, our levels of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone naturally start to decline. With lower and lower amounts of these hormones available, the ovaries no longer release eggs and the uterine lining no longer thickens and sheds. Periods stop and pregnancy becomes impossible. Menopause typically occurs in a woman's late forties or early fifties.
While technically defined as 12 months without a period, menopause is more a transition than an event to be marked on the calendar. And your body typically gives you lots of fair warning that change is taking place.
An important menopause fact to know is that many women go through a period of time — often lasting as long as five to seven years —when periods become irregular. This is not menopause, but a stage called perimenopause. You may experience lighter or heavier bleeding, your cycles may come sooner and last longer, or you may even skip having a period for several months. In the last one to two years before your periods stop altogether, you might start to notice the typical symptoms of menopause (hot flashes, mood swings, and sleep disturbances, for example). It essentially means menopause is knocking on your door. After 12 months without a period, you are officially in what is known as postmenopause.
Menopause may be natural and normal, but that doesn't mean it isn't scary. Limit the stress with this guide to menopause facts.
Menopause Fact: The average age of menopause is 51 in the US — but there's a lot of variability
Experiencing menopause between the ages of 45 and 55 is normal. Menopause that occurs between 40 and 45 is called early menopause — something about 5 percent of women encounter. Even rarer is what experts call "premature" menopause, which is menopause that occurs in women before the age of 40. Roughly one in 20 women will have what's termed "late menopause," occurring after age 55.
Menopause Fact: Many factors determine when you will go through menopause
Your family history and lifestyle will play a role in when you go through menopause. For example, research shows that women often experience menopause at about the same age as their mothers. Other research shows that women who smoke go through menopause about two years earlier than women who don't smoke. It is thought that smoking affects the way a woman's body responds to estrogen. It can also begin a chemical reaction in the body that leads to menopause.
Menopause Fact: Some women have "sudden" menopauses
Women who have their ovaries removed (for things such as ovarian cancer) will go through immediate menopause. If you keep your ovaries but remove your uterus (known as a hysterectomy), you can still menstruate and, as such, will go through a natural menopause. Chemotherapy and radiation can damage the ovaries, which may stop your periods and lead to menopause. However, some women, especially those who are still in their reproductive prime, may see their periods return.
Menopause Fact: Having a late menopause may mean you'll live longer
One study found that women who went through menopause after age 55 lived two years longer than those who went through it at 40. But it's important to keep things in perspective. Women who go through menopause later are less likely to have heart problems, but are more likely to have breast cancer.
Menopause Fact: If you're truly in menopause, you won't have any vaginal bleeding
And that includes spotting or staining. If you're having vaginal bleeding, even if it's very light or occurs only once every few months, chances are you are in perimenopause and have not yet reached menopause. If, however, you are experiencing menstrual-like bleeding after having not had your period for 12 months or more, see your doctor. The cause of the bleeding will have to be checked out.
Menopause Fact: You'll probably gain weight
As we age we naturally lose muscle and gain fat, which is why women and men and tend to put on weight as they get older. But menopausal women have an added challenge: The drop in estrogen causes them to gain more abdominal fat (yeah, we're talking about you menopause muffin top). To help control your weight, exercise more and eat a little less. Experts note that just to maintain your weight you need to eat about 200 fewer calories a day in your 50s than you did in your 30s.
Menopause Fact: Starting your period early means you may experience menopause early
Research shows that women who began menstruating earlier than age 11 are 80 percent more likely to have premature menopause and 31 percent more apt to encounter early menopause than women who began their periods at age 12. The risk is particularly high for women who started their periods very young and never had any children.
Menopause Fact: You can't get pregnant when you're in menopause, but you can when you're in perimenopause
You may get lax with birth control when your periods are irregular and you think you're past your reproductive prime. But perimenopause is no time to get let your contraceptive guard down. Until your periods have stopped for a full year, you still have the ability to get pregnant. If you want to avoid pregnancy, use reliable birth control whenever you have sex.
Menopause Fact: The most common menopause symptom is hot flashes
An estimated 75 percent of women will experience hot flashes (a sudden and brief increase in body temperature). While hot flashes vary in intensity and frequency from woman to woman, they tend to be a fairly common companion for a year or two leading up to menopause and a year or two after.
Menopause Fact: Menopause affects more than just your reproductive health
While the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone obviously influence your reproductive health, their presence (or lack of it) also impacts other aspects of your health. Because of these lower levels of hormones, postmenopausal women are at increased risk of heart disease, osteoporosis (bone loss), urinary incontinence and oral health issues.
Menopause Fact: Menopause does have its benefits
OK, there's the obvious — no more periods (welcome back white pants!). But a lack of estrogen and progesterone also means an end to hormonal headaches, PMS, monthly breast tenderness and cramps, and (and this is huge) messing with contraception or fearing unintended pregnancy—and that's all good news for a lot of women.