For the majority of women, menopause is a natural transition that occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. For some women, however, this change can begin much earlier. In fact, up to 1% of women will enter menopause before the age of 45. Women who undergo menopause at an earlier age may have numerous questions about the physical changes and what they can mean moving forward. Fortunately, by better understanding early menopause and all that it entails, women can face this transition with greater confidence. Learn the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding menopause.
Q: What Is Early Menopause?
A: Menopause occurs when a woman has not had a period for 12 consecutive months. For women under the age of 45, this transition is considered early menopause, and for women under the age of 40, this is premature menopause. Like menopause, early menopause signals the end of a woman's reproductive years, and she will soon enter postmenopause, which will last for the remainder of her life.
Early menopause is often confused with perimenopause, which is the stage preceding menopause. These terms are not interchangeable and are, in fact, completely different.
Q: What Causes Early Menopause?
A: There are numerous factors that can contribute to the early onset of menopause, which are divided into natural causes and medical causes. While they may seem similar on the surface, whether a woman undergoes early menopause naturally or through medical intervention can determine many aspects of how women experience this transition. The different causes of early menopause are highlighted below.
Women who undergo menopause naturally experience a decline in hormone function sooner than average.
Premature ovarian failure (POF)
Premature ovarian failure refers to the loss of normal ovarian function before the age of 40. When the ovaries fail, they decrease hormone production and do not release eggs consistently. This can often lead to infertility. It is the primary reason women experience early menopause. There are several factors that can lead to POF, all of which are dependent on a woman's genetics or medical history.
Certain viral infections, such as tuberculosis, can cause significant damage to the reproductive system. As a result, the ovaries may not function the way they are supposed to, which sends signals to the body that it is no longer fertile. As a result, the effects of these viral infections can trigger early onset menopause.
Tube ligation is the surgical process for sterilization where a woman's fallopian tubes are clamped and blocked or severed and sealed. Women typically have tube ligations for one of two reasons: as a permanent means of birth control or to decrease the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer. In some individuals, this may trigger some early menopause-like symptoms.
A hysterectomy is the surgical removal of the uterus and/or other reproductive organs. This procedure can be done for a number of reasons, including permanent birth control or to treat the following conditions: endometriosis, gynecologic cancer, fibroids, uterine prolapse, abnormal bleeding, and chronic pelvic pain. When a hysterectomy occurs, there is a sudden decrease in hormonal production, though the type of hysterectomy influences the degree of hormonal decline.Women who have had radical hysterectomies tend to have the most severe symptoms of anyone who undergoes menopause, regardless of age.
Chemotherapy or radiation therapy
Women over the age of 35 who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy treatments are at higher risk for early onset menopause, especially if they are being treated for reproductive cancers, such as ovarian or uterine cancer.
Q: How Is Early Menopause Diagnosed?
A: To diagnose early menopause, your physician will likely conduct a physical examination and order a blood analysis in order to rule out pregnancy or thyroid conditions. Once those possibilities have been ruled out, your doctor will likely test your level of estradiol, a form of estrogen. If the test reveals low levels of estradiol, it can be indicative of ovarian failure. Another test that is conducted is a blood test that measures follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels. FSH stimulates the ovaries, causing them to produce estrogen. When the ovaries slow down estrogen production, FSH levels increase, and when they have reached a certain level, menopause has likely occurred.
Q: What Are the Symptoms of Early Menopause?
A: In many ways, early menopause is similar to menopause. Women will experience many of the same symptoms entering early menopause they would when entering menopause at an older age. However, depending on whether a woman enters early menopause naturally or has medically-induced early menopause may determine the duration and severity of symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Irregular or missed periods
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Mood swings
- Loss of libido
Q: How Long Will Symptoms Last?
A: The duration and severity of early menopause symptoms can depend on numerous factors, including lifestyle factors, genetics, and whether her early menopause is naturally occurring or medically induced.
For women who experience natural early menopause, the average is four years; for early menopause through medical intervention, this stage may last only a few months, however; their symptoms are typically more severe, since the decrease in hormonal production occurs at a much faster rate, giving the body less time to adjust to the changes that are taking place.
However, women can decrease the severity and duration of symptoms through a number of ways, some of which are as simple as making positive lifestyle changes or taking certain medications.
Q: How Do I Manage Symptoms?
A: Regarding early menopause, the good new is there are numerous treatment options that can alleviate early menopause symptoms: lifestyle changes and alternative medicine.
Lifestyle factors can influence many aspects of a woman's health. By making simple, positive lifestyle changes, women can decrease the duration and severity of their early menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats. Simple lifestyle changes can include eating a healthy, nutritious diet filled with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, calcium, lean proteins, and good sources of fat, as well as getting plenty of exercise. 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week is recommended for optimal health. Some activities women can do include aerobics, brisk walking, jogging, and swimming. Women should also consider incorporating stress-relieving activities into their schedule, such as yoga or meditation.
When undergoing early menopause, many women turn to alternative medicine to alleviate their symptoms, such as massage and biofeedback. While these treatments can beget positive changes in well-being, they do not address the hormonal causes of early menopause symptoms. Herbal supplements can target the symptoms at their hormonal source. These treatments are fall under two classifications: phytoestrogenic and hormone-regulating.
Phytoestrogenic herbs, such as black cohosh or ginseng, contain plant-based estrogenic compounds that are similar to the estrogen women naturally product and are often used to fill in for the hormones that the body is not producing on its own. While this can be an effective short-term solution, phytoestrogenic compounds decrease the body's ability to produce hormones, which can lead to the worsening of early menopause symptoms in the long term.
Hormone-regulating supplements, on the other hand, nourish the endocrine glands, which enables the body produce hormones naturally. This is considered one of the most effective and safest early menopause symptom treatments.
By better understanding these changes and what can be done to manage symptoms, women who undergo early menopause can face the changes ahead with relative ease and possibly even see the positive aspects. Women experiencing these changes should reach out for support, whether it is through a loved one or a medical professional.
Click on early menopause treatments to discover the best route to relief.
- Mayo Clinic. (2015). Menopause. Retrieved May 31, 2016, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/menopause/basics/definition/con-20019726
- National Institute on Aging. (2015). Hormones and Menopause. Retrieved June 2, 2016, from http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/hormones-and-menopause
- Office on Women's Health. (2010). Menopause. Retrieved June 2, 2016, from http://womenshealth.gov/menopause/menopause-basics/index.html
- Okeke, T.C. , Anyaehie, U.B. & Ezenyeaku, C.C. (2013). Premature Menopause. Annals of Medical & Health Sciences Research, 3(1), 90-95. doi: 10.4103/2141-9248.109458