While perimenopause, the period before menstruation ceases, can last up to 10 years before the actual event, (menopause), postmenopausal changes can affect the rest of your life.
Menopause is defined as the time in a woman’s life when she has not menstruated for 12 consecutive months. This can be due to the natural aging process, or a medical condition or surgery that brings about the early change. While many of the uncomfortable symptoms associated with perimenopause and fluctuating hormone levels such as, hot flashes, menopause weight gain, memory loss, and fatigue tend to decrease over time, women may be at increased risk for other serious medical conditions at this time.
Once menstruation has ceased completely for more than a year, the body continues to adjust to lower levels of estrogen produced by the ovaries.
Post Menopause Symptoms
- No menstrual period for 12 consecutive months
- Vaginal itching and dryness
- Incontinence from sneezing, coughing, laughing
- More frequent infections in the urinary tract
- Difficulty falling (or staying) asleep
- Hot flashes
- Increased risk for osteoporosis
- Elevated risk for heart disease
- Spotting due to vaginal dryness
Causes of Premature Post Menopause
According to the National Institute on Aging, the average age of menopause in the U.S. is 51, however certain surgeries, illnesses, or medical treatments can bring about menopause much earlier than expected in a woman’s life. These include, the surgical removal of the ovaries, some auto-immune disorders, and treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy.
Evidence suggests that the following medical conditions may contribute to early menopause in women:
- Turner syndrome (chromosome defect that affects ovaries)
- Thyroid disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Natural Causes of Post Menopause
For most women, genetics and lifestyle factors affect the point at which menopause occurs and the period of post menopause that follows.
The age at which a woman’s own mother experienced menopause is generally a good indicator of timing. In fact, women are 6 times more likely to go through menopause earlier or later depending on their mother’s own history.
Smoking also affects the age of menopause. Because of anti- estrogen effects, long-term or regular smokers experience menopause 1-2 years earlier than non-smoking women.
Body Mass Index may also impact menopausal timing. Because estrogen gets stored in fat tissue, women who are very thin may experience menopause earlier than others.
Menopause and Post Menopause—The Differences
During the menopausal years, as estrogen levels fluctuate women experience many outward physical symptoms such as, hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, low libido, and brain fog. Once post menopause begins, (the period after a woman no longer menstruates for 12 consecutive months) most of these symptoms begin to disappear.
Other conditions such as vaginal atrophy, osteoporosis, and heart disease become more of a concern at this time, however.
Vaginal atrophy—Because estrogen hormones are necessary to provide lubrication and elasticity within the vagina, decreased levels of these hormones directly affect vaginal health.
Osteoporosis—Women lose 25 percent of their bone mass between menopause and age 60. Since estrogen affects cells within the bones, causing them to stop breaking down, the lack of hormones can lead to “brittle-bone disease”, and a greater risk of breaks and fractures.
Coronary artery disease—According to the American Heart Association, post menopause may increase the risk of coronary artery disease for several reasons. Primarily, the hormone estrogen helps keep the inner walls of the arteries surrounding the heart healthier and more flexible, allowing them to expand and contract with blood flow. In addition, blood pressure levels, “bad” cholesterol, and high triglycerides are affected by low estrogen and can contribute to an increased risk of coronary artery disease in women.
Testing For Post Menopause
In addition to the absence of a menstrual period for at least 12 consecutive months, women may take a simple blood test, measuring “follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels. The pituitary gland located at the base of the brain produces FSH. In post menopause, as Estradiol, (a form of estrogen) decreases, follicle stimulating hormone continues to attempt to stimulate egg production. As the ovaries begin to shutdown signaling the end of fertility, FSH increases.
Post menopause can be a positive time in a woman’s life, free from menstruation and many of the symptoms of perimenopause. Knowing what to expect as the body decreases its production of estrogen can help make this period of adjustment much easier.