Menopause is defined as “the period of permanent cessation of menstruation”. Culturally, however the condition is most often discussed in the context of the perimenopausal phase. This is the transition phase when a woman’s periods are becoming irregular prior to the actual permanent cessation of menses. The troublesome symptoms that accompany this transition are responsible for the infamy of this change.
Menopause results once the ovaries have stopped producing eggs. The hormonal consequence is a significant reduction in the circulating levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. For the most part, these hormones are created in the ovaries. Estrogen and testosterone can be produced in smaller quantities from other sites within the body.
The average age of menopause is 51.3 years but can range from 45-55 years of age.
Perimenopause is the period prior to menopause where ovarian function is slowing and ovulation is less frequent. The menstrual cycle lengthens. This tends to occur after age 40 and can continue for 2-8 years before the actual menopause.
Hormone levels reflect these changes. Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels tend to be increased. This hormone is working harder and harder to get the ovary to make follicles and to ovulate. The remaining follicles tend to be less responsive, so higher levels of FSH are required to stimulate them. Sometimes ovulation doesn’t occur. This explains decreased fertility in this age group. The estrogen levels are not significantly reduced but may fluctuate based on the ovarian activity. At the point there are no follicles left to respond, then menstruation ceases forever!
Once the transition to menopause is complete there maybe some health consequences that can be directly associated with hormonal deficiency. Historically, estrogen has been identified as the culprit. The role of progesterone is discussed in the lay literature but has largely unstudied despite anecdotal evidence to support its function. The role of testosterone appears to be minimal as a contributor to health sequela.
The medical concerns surrounding menopause are both a result of the potential health risk and the bothersome symptoms that can interfere with the quality of life. It is important to distinguish the difference.
Most of the problems that are of concern are a consequence of aging but certainly can be exacerbated by the resultant hormonal deficiency. There are other issues that are specific to hormonal deficiency. Finally, there are the annoying symptoms that are not life threatening but can impact the quality of life.
Issues specific to hormone deficiency
• Urogenital Dryness
• Decreased Libido
Problems that occur with age that might be exacerbated by hormone deficiency
• Loss of bone density
• Loss of muscle mass and strength
• Hair loss
• Weight gain
Quality of life issues
• Hot flashes/Night sweats
• Mood swings
• Urinary symptoms
Menopause is the post reproductive stage of a woman’s life. For some it is a time of great joy and celebration and for others it brings much sadness and mourning. Since this coincides with aging there are many potential health risks that arise during this time. It is important to know your risks so you can eliminate them and develop good health habits that may counterbalance these risks.
I hope this article has provided you with information that will help you make wise choices, so you may:
Live healthy, live well and live long!