Menopause is the time in a woman’s life when she stops having menstrual periods. The years leading up to this point are called perimenopause or “around menopause". Menopause marks the end of the reproductive years that began in puberty. The average age that women go through menopause is 51 years. Most women enjoy a healthy lifestyle for years afterward.
Estrogen and Menstrual Changes
As menopause nears, the ovaries make less estrogen. One of the earliest and most common signs that menopause may be approaching is a change in your menstrual periods. You may skip one or more periods. The amount of flow may become lighter or heavier. At some point, the ovaries stop making enough estrogen to thicken the lining of the uterus. This is when the menstrual periods stop.
What to Expect
Menopause is a natural part of aging. The lower amounts of estrogen that come with menopause will cause changes in your body such as the following:
Hot Flushes: The most common symptom of menopause is hot flushes (hot flashes). As many as 75% of menopausal women in the United States will have them. A hot flush is a sudden feeling of heat that rushes to the upper body and face. The skin may redden like a blush. You also may break out in a sweat.
Sleep Problems: Hot flushes can cause a lack of sleep, often waking a woman from a deep sleep. A lack of sleep may be one of the biggest problems you face as you approach menopause.
Vaginal and Urinary Tract Changes: The loss of estrogen causes changes in the vagina. Its lining may become thin and dry. These changes can cause pain during sexual intercourse. They also can make the vagina more prone to infection, which can cause burning and itching.
Bone Changes: Bone loss is a normal part of aging. At menopause, the rate of bone loss increases. Osteoporosis, a result of this bone loss, increases the risk of breaking bones in older women. The bones of the hip, wrist and spine are affected most often.
Emotional Changes: Menopause does not cause sudden mood swings or depression. However, the change in hormone levels may make you feel nervous, irritable or very tired. These feelings may be linked to other symptoms of menopause, such as lack of sleep.
Sexuality: Menopause does not have to affect your ability to enjoy sex. Although the lack of estrogen may make the vagina dry, vaginal lubricants can help moisten the vagina and make sex more comfortable. Regular sex may help the vagina keep its natural elasticity.
Some women find that they have less interest in sex around and after menopause. Lower hormone levels may decrease the sex drive.
Pregnancy: Women are not completely free of the risk of pregnancy until one year after your last period.
The Gynecologic Visit
Routine visits to your provider for breast, pelvic and rectal exams are recommended for all women. Your provider will do a PAP test to check for cancer of the cervix. Between visits you should perform a breast self-exam once a month. Depending on your age, your provider may recommend that you have a mammogram. Women older than 40 years should have a mammogram every one to two years and then every year beginning at age 50 years.
Good Nutrition: Eating a balanced diet will help you stay healthy before, during and after menopause. It’s important to eat a variety of foods to make sure you get all the essential nutrients. Choose a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. Also, be sure to include enough calcium in your diet to help maintain strong bones.
Exercise: Exercise is very important, especially as you get older. Regular exercise slows down bone loss and improves your overall health. Follow a program of regular weight-bearing exercise, such as walking and aerobics.
Menopause is a natural event. Today, women can expect to live one third of their lives after menopause. The physical changes that occur around menopause should not prevent you from enjoying this time of your life.
This excerpt from ACOG’s Patient Education Pamphlet is provided for your information. It is not medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for visiting your doctor. If you need medical care, have any questions or wish to receive the full text of this Patient Education Pamphlet, please contact your obstetrician-gynecologist. To ensure the information is current and accurate, ACOG titles are reviewed every 18 months.
Copyright © March 2003 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Medical Disclaimer: The information provided on the Gynecology & Infertility Associates website should be relied upon for medical education purposes only. It is not intended to replace the independent judgment of a health care provider. The appropriateness of a course of treatment for a patient may vary from the medical information provided herein due to individual conditions and/or complications.