If you're a woman in your mid-forties to mid-fifties, menopause may be on your mind.
Menopause is the stage in your reproductive life when — because of naturally declining levels of the female hormones progesterone and (especially) estrogen — you stop having periods and are no longer able to get pregnant. For most American women, the average age of menopause, which is medically defined as the absence of a period for at least consecutive 12 months, is 51.
But don't expect to wake up on your 51st birthday and suddenly be in menopause.
Menopause is a transition, and one that has a lot of variation. Visualize a bell curve. While 51 may be the average age of menopause, it's not at all uncommon for women to go through menopause (aka "the change of life") anywhere between their mid 40s to late 50s.
Less common are what experts call early menopause (before the age of 45) and premature menopause (before age 40). A number of factors, including family history, smoking cigarettes, having certain diseases, and having your ovaries removed, can cause an early or premature menopause.
But menopause is more than a number. The ovaries don't suddenly shut off production of hormones, stunning your body into menopause at the age of 51 — or 45 or 55, etc. It is a years-in-the-making event when your body's reproductive functioning slowly but surely wanes. This period is known as perimenopause, a kind of primer course for the real deal that comes replete with irregular menstruation and other telltale symptoms (hello hot flashes, mood swings, and sleep disturbances) that signal menopause is near.
Menopause may be natural — but it's also nerve-racking. Here, a beginner's guide to the change of life for those nearing the average age of menopause.
Do the math
When it comes to menopause, there are lots of variables. But one thing that remains constant is the math. You must be period-free (and that includes even light periods) for 12 consecutive months before you are considered to be in menopause. Got your period in April and then didn't get it again until August? You're not in menopause. Had light spotting one month, skipped the next two, and then had a regular period the next month? You're not in menopause either. What you're likely experiencing is perimenopause, the very normal transition stage that occurs prior to menopause. Perimenopause can start 10 years before menopause.
Your age at menopause depends on a lot of factors
Your health, genetics, and lifestyle all play a role in determining when you might reach menopause. For example, research shows that risk factors for early menopause are not having children, starting menstruation early, smoking, and having high blood pressure and diabetes. On the flip side, having more education, a job, and even drinking alcohol seemed to delay the onset of menopause (I'll get the shaker, you grab the vodka). But the age at which your mom went through menopause is perhaps one of the best predictors of when you might experience it.
Fun fact: The average age of menopause varies around the world
While the average age of menopause is generally in the early 50s for industrialized nations, there is some slight variation. One study reports the average age of menopause as 54 in Europe, 51.4 in North America, 51.1 in Asia, and 48.6 in Latin America.
Menopause affects your health in ways you may not notice
Menopause has some hard-to-ignore symptoms, like hot flashes, weight gain, and vaginal dryness that can make sex uncomfortable. But menopause can affect your body in ways that don't necessarily jump out at you. Estrogen helps keep blood vessels open and prevents the buildup of cholesterol on artery walls, protecting you against heart disease and stroke. It also helps maintain bone mass, protecting you from a thinning, weakened skeleton (a condition called osteoporosis).
If you're on the Pill, you might not know you're in menopause
Hormonal forms of contraception like the birth control pill suppress production of estrogen and progesterone from the ovaries and supply you with synthetic versions of these hormones. These chemical hormones keep your periods regular and symptoms of menopause at bay. But that doesn't mean your body isn't undergoing some serious change. If you're a woman who uses the Pill and you're nearing the average age of menopause, the only way to really know if your periods have stopped or become irregular is to get off the medication and see what happens. Use a non-hormonal form of birth control (like a condom) until your periods have stopped for a year and you are in menopause.
You'll have a lot of company when you go through menopause
An estimated 6,000 women reach menopause every day, and with the female life expectancy in this country reaching about 80, you're likely to spend 40 percent of your life in postmenopause, a stage of life that begins after a full year without a period.
Menopause might be no big deal for you
When it comes to menopause, you've probably heard a lot of stories about night sweats so drenching, sheets have to be changed at 3 a.m., and mood swings so dramatic — well, let's just say you know your way around crazy town pretty well. We're not discounting the stories, but it's important to remember that every woman's experience is different. Experts aren't exactly sure why, but many women pass through menopause with only very mild discomfort. So don't let the horror stories scare you. Menopause may not be a party, but there's a decent chance it won't be hormonal hell, either.