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African women and menopause A Beginning

Does menopause affect quality of life, or does quality of life impact menopause? For many years women and their doctors viewed menopause as something that ‘just happened’ and believed that there was little if anything to do to help. Are women powerless in the face of menopause? Women in Africa are living longer and with greater numbers of women reaching menopause, doctors are keen to understand what roles cultural beliefs play in understanding women’s health.

Researchers are learning more about what menopause is and how negative and positive attitudes have a direct influence on the change. In North America, the attitudes are shifting to reflect a greater understanding of women’s healthcare; menopause is often affected by socio-cultural values and lifestyle choices.

Doctors are noting how the youth-obsessed Western values have complicated menopause, making it a ‘disease’ when it is simply a physical transition similar to puberty. In Africa, admittedly a large and vast area that cannot begin to be addressed in one study doctors and researchers are examining the effects of society on women and menopause.

Currently, there is little if any medical literature available for consultation meaning researchers must begin a grassroots menopause study. Members of the Medforum Mediclinic in Pretoria, South Africa studied the intricate social networks that are the backbone of many of Africa’s communities. A cross-section of women between the ages of 35 and 84 gave interesting insights regarding the importance of environment and social standing.

Two very distinct notes leap out from the abstract. Unlike most studies where foreign (often English speaking) researchers lead the way, these interviews took place in the participant’s own languages. This gives women greater power to give information and to understand menopause and its impact on their lives. Something else that is likely a first anywhere is that the women’s spouses also participated in the belief that menopause greatly affects husbands and well as wives. Western husbands can attest to that!

The findings are somewhat general in nature, but sill point to some strong beginnings about taking women’s health matters seriously. Observers learned the vast differences between various racial groups, ending the notion of a homogenous African continent, which is a common Western error.

Moreover, the social influence between rural and urban centers showed the advantages of urban women having greater access to education, opportunities, information, and healthcare. This mirrors the current situations in many Western nations where urban dwellers tend to have greater advantages in healthcare compared to rural counterparts.

Another huge shift is the attitude toward menopause itself. Just as in North America and Europe, menopause is recognized for the natural condition that it is; a natural stage in a woman’s life. Similar shifts in thinking in the West indicate that once menopause is accepted as a normal and natural occurrence there is evidence that a better quality of life brings greater improvement in menopause management.

One particular note of interest is addressing the notion that menopause is often dismissed as a ‘wealthy white women’s condition’ in that well-off women have more time to ponder the menopause transition and see this as the end of life or at least a youthful and productive life. Some studies have even pointed out that African-American women viewed menopause as another part of life while their Caucasian sisters had the luxury of lamenting a lost youth in a society that values youth and looks above all else. The thinking was “menopause does not exist in black female patients” but as these studies in Africa show menopause is all too real in women of all races.

With this new awareness, doctors in Africa’s nations in transition will share their increasing knowledge about menopause and quality of life with Western colleagues. At the end of the day, much work remains but the acceptance of menopause continues to shatter the myth of menopause as a disease and the end of a woman’s life.

“Menopause: The African perspective” Shimange Oscar (ZA) – Medforum Mediclinic, as presented at the 13th World Congress on Menopause, Rome, 2011.

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