By Mary O’KEEFE
Menopause is a normal physical change in a woman’s life; however, not all women are the same when it comes to its onset, her symptoms and length of time spent in menopause.
For generations, talking about women’s health, especially something like “the change of life,” just wasn’t done; but this time of transition is a natural part of aging that still seems to be surrounded by some mystery and misinformation.
“Menopause is when the ovaries stop functioning,” said Dr. Laila A-Marayati, OBGYN (obstetrics and gynecology) at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. “It is the end of [a woman’s] reproductive [years].”
Menopause occurs when the ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. It is reached when a woman has not had a period for 12 consecutive months, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The average age for the onset of menopause is 51, but it can occur between 45 and 55 years old, Dr. A-Marayati added.
“This is a critical time in women’s lives,” she said.
She said at this age many women are focusing on their careers and their children are older. A distraction like menopause is something that can add stress to their lives.
And menopause can bring a lot of distractions from the beginning, like frequent and heavy periods, and periods that can last longer than a week. Then there is the possibility of the loss of bladder control, known as incontinence, bladder infections, mood changes, weight gain [yes, your metabolism is slowing down] and, if that’s not enough, there are hot flashes – menopause seems to be a bad gift that keeps on giving. And, to make things worse, the hot flashes can last long after menopause ends, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Then there is the lack of sleep. For many women, menopause ushers in late night struggles to either fall asleep or wake up too early. A lot of times the tossing and turning starts with night sweats that wake up women.
“Fatigue is driving a lot of the other symptoms,” added Dr. A-Marayati.
Most of these symptoms are things that many mothers warned about; however, what is less talked about is the way menopause can affect a woman’s libido. Some women are less interested in sex and/or have pain during sex. These, too, are important symptoms that need to be discussed.
One piece of misinformation often included in the list of menopause symptoms is depression. According to Dr. A-Marayati, there is no data that shows that menopause increases women being diagnosed with depression.
But for those who have symptoms like hot flashes or lack of sleep, they should speak to their doctor.
“Don’t wait to go to the doctor,” Dr. A-Marayati said.
To mitigate the milder symptoms, women can take plant-based supplements or add soy to the diet. For more uncomfortable symptoms there is medication available including hormone therapy.
“What is recommended is the lowest dose [of estrogen/hormones] for three or four years,” said Dr. A-Marayati. “It is not something to be afraid of.”
Of course, as with any medication, it is important for women to check with their doctor as these treatments are not for everyone – including women who are breast cancer survivors.
And although all women go through menopause, they don’t all face the same symptoms and there is not one timeline that applies to every woman.
“That is the million dollar question,” said Dr. A-Marayati of how long menopause lasts. “Everyone is different … Every woman goes through it in her own way.”
This is also a time when women should eat a calcium rich diet or take Vitamin D and magnesium supplements because osteoporosis is another threat to a woman’s health. It has been found that a lack of estrogen is linked to osteoporosis, which is a weakening of the bones.
However, the most important action that can be taken is to talk to a gynecologist about the symptoms of menopause and how to prepare for this change in a woman’s life. Being prepared for osteoporosis and finding out what options women have for menopausal symptoms will not stop this natural transition … but it may stop a lot of sleepless nights, literally.
So although it seems to be just one challenge after another, for women it really is just a natural transition and the more willing women are to talk openly and honestly with their doctors about menopause the more they will find a way to deal right away with their symptoms.