Understanding Perimenopause and Menopause

Some women never have breast cancer or endometriosis. Others may not give birth or have a hysterectomy. But there is one health experience that all women go through, menopause. Just like puberty, menopause is a normal part of life. It is a time when a woman’s body changes, her periods stop, and she is no longer able to get pregnant naturally.

The average age for a woman to go through menopause is about 50, but it can occur anywhere between the ages of 41 to 59. A woman will typically go through menopause at approximately the same age as her mother. This change begins when the ovaries stop making the hormones estrogen and progesterone, and no longer release eggs.

The time leading up to menopause is called perimenopause. This is a transitional time of two to eight years before menopause during which time periods eventually cease, plus the first year after the last period. A woman has “been through menopause” when she has gone a full year without having a period. Perimenopause is different from premenopause. Premenopause refers to the time in a woman’s life from her first to her last regular menstrual period, or her “normal” reproductive years. Postmenopause is the time in a woman’s life after menopause has occurred.

During perimenopause, a woman may or may not notice changes in her body because is affects each woman differently. Some common symptoms include changes in the menstrual cycle (periods may be longer or shorter, heavier or lighter, or be missed), hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, urinary infections, problems sleeping, decreased interest in sex, mood changes, increased body fat around the waist, and difficulty with concentration or memory. Although periods may be irregular during this time, a woman would need to take precautions if she does not want to become pregnant.

Hot flashes and night sweats may stop about a year after menopause. But other health problems can develop as a result of reduced hormone levels that could have long-term effects. Osteoporosis can cause bones to become weak and prone to breaking. That is why is it important to get plenty of calcium and vitamin D to lower the risk of developing the disease. Weight-bearing exercise can help keep muscles strong and reduce the risk of falling.

Lower estrogen levels also may lead to higher cholesterol levels, increasing a woman’s risk for heart disease or stroke. To reduce the risk of developing heart disease and stay healthy after menopause, women should:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Get enough calcium and vitamin D.
  • Maintain a normal weight.
  • Exercise at least three days a week.

Hormone replacement therapy may be recommended to relieve some symptoms of menopause. But it is not for everyone. Talk with your doctor about any bothersome symptoms to decide how to best manage menopause.