Menopause is the time that marks the end of your menstrual cycles. It's diagnosed after you've gone 12 months without a menstrual period. Menopause can happen in your 40s or 50s, but the average age is 51 in the United States.
Menopause is a natural biological process. But the physical symptoms, such as hot flashes, and emotional symptoms of menopause may disrupt your sleep, lower your energy or affect emotional health. There are many effective treatments available, from lifestyle adjustments to hormone therapy.
Why does menopause happen?
Natural menopause — menopause that’s not caused by surgery or another medical condition — is a normal part of aging. Menopause is defined as a complete year without menstrual bleeding, in the absence of any surgery or medical condition that may cause bleeding to artificially stop such as hormonal birth control, overactive thyroid, high prolactin, radiation or surgical removal of the ovaries.
As you age, the reproductive cycle begins to slow down and prepares to stop. This cycle has been continuously functioning since puberty. As menopause nears, your ovaries make less of a hormone called estrogen. When this decrease occurs, your menstrual cycle (period) starts to change. It can become irregular and then stop. Physical changes can also happen as your body adapts to different levels of hormones. The symptoms you experience during each stage of menopause (perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause) are all part of your body’s adjustment to these changes.
CREDIT: Cleveland Clinic
How Long Do Symptoms of Menopause Last?
Once in menopause (you haven't had a period for 12 months) and on into postmenopause, the symptoms may continue for an average of four to five years, but they decrease in frequency and intensity. Some women report their symptoms last longer. The most common symptoms include: Hot flashes
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Menopause?
Estrogen is used by many parts of a woman’s body. As levels of estrogen decrease, you could have various symptoms. Many women experience mild symptoms that can be treated by lifestyle changes such as avoiding caffeine or carrying a portable fan. Some women don’t require any treatment at all, but for others, symptoms can be more severe. The severity of symptoms varies greatly around the world and by race and ethnicity.
Here are the most common changes you might notice at midlife. Some may be part of aging rather than directly related to menopause.
Change in your period. This might be what you notice first. Your periods may no longer be regular. They may be shorter or last longer. You might bleed more or less than usual. These are all normal changes, but to make sure there isn’t a problem, see your doctor if:
Your periods happen very close together.
You have heavy bleeding.
You have spotting.
Your periods last more than a week.
Your periods resume after no bleeding for more than a year.
Hot flashes. Many women have hot flashes, which can last for many years after menopause. They may be related to changing estrogen levels. A hot flash is a sudden feeling of heat in the upper part or all of your body. Your face and neck may become flushed. Red blotches may appear on your chest, back, and arms. Heavy sweating and cold shivering can follow. Hot flashes can be very mild or strong enough to wake you up (called night sweats). Most hot flashes last between 30 seconds and 10 minutes. They can happen several times an hour, a few times a day, or just once or twice a week.
Bladder control. A loss of bladder control is called
incontinence. You may have a sudden urge to urinate, or urine may leak during exercise, sneezing, or laughing. The first step in treating incontinence is to see a doctor. Bladder infections also can occur in midlife.
Sleep. Around midlife, some women start having trouble getting a good night’s sleep. Maybe you can’t fall asleep easily, or you wake too early. Night sweats might wake you up. And if you wake up during the night, you might have trouble falling back to sleep.
Vaginal health and sexuality. After menopause, the vagina may become drier, which can make sexual intercourse uncomfortable. Read about options for addressing vaginal pain during sex in Sex and Menopause: Treatment for Symptoms. You may also find that your feelings about sex are changing. You could be less interested, or you could feel freer and sexier because after one full year without a period, you can no longer become pregnant. However, you could still be at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as gonorrhea or HIV/AIDS. Your risk for an STD increases if you have sex with more than one person or with someone who has sex with others. If so, make sure your partner uses a condom each time you have sex.
Mood changes. You might feel moodier or more irritable around the time of menopause. Scientists don’t know why this happens. It’s possible that stress, family changes such as growing children or aging parents, a history of depression, or feeling tired could be causing these mood changes. Talk with your primary care provider or a mental health professional about what you’re experiencing. There are treatments available to help.
Your body seems different. Your waist could get larger. You could lose muscle and gain fat. Your skin could become thinner. You might have memory problems, and your joints and muscles could feel stiff and achy. Researchers are exploring such changes and how they relate to hormones and growing older.
In addition, for some women, symptoms may include aches and pains, headaches, and heart palpitations. Follow up with a doctor. Because menopausal symptoms may be caused by changing hormone levels, it is unpredictable how often women will experience symptoms and how severe they will be.
CREDIT: National Institute of Health
What Happens After Menopause?
After menopause you will no longer be able to get pregnant and you will no longer get a period. If you have any type of vaginal bleeding after menopause, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. Vaginal bleeding after menopause is not normal and can mean that you have a serious health problem.
You may experience any of the following after menopause:
Low hormone levels. With menopause, your ovaries make very little of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Because of changing hormone levels, you may develop certain health risks, including osteoporosis, heart disease, and stroke.
Menopause symptoms instead of period problems. After menopause, most women get relief from period problems or menopause symptoms. However, you may still experience symptoms such as hot flashes because of changing estrogen levels. One recent study found that hot flashes can continue for up to 14 years after menopause.
Vaginal dryness. Vaginal dryness may be more common post-menopause. Learn more about treatments for vaginal dryness.
CREDIT: US Department of Health and Human Services: Office of Women Health