What is Menopause?

Menopause is the period of life when your menstrual periods stop. It is a normal part of aging and marks the end of your reproductive years. Menopause typically occurs in the late 40s or early 50s. However, people who have their ovaries surgically removed experience “sudden” surgical menopause.

What causes menopause?
Natural menopause, not caused by surgery or another medical condition, is a normal part of aging. Menopause is defined as a full year without menstrual bleeding in the absence of any surgical or medical condition that could cause bleeding to stop artificially, such as hormonal birth control, overactive thyroid, high prolactin, radiation, or surgical removal of the ovaries.

As we get older, the reproductive cycle begins to slow down and prepares to stop. This cycle has been running continuously since adolescence. As menopause approaches, your ovaries produce less of the hormone called estrogen. When this decrease occurs, your menstrual cycle begins to change. It may become irregular and then stop. Physical changes may also occur as your body adjusts to different hormone levels. The symptoms you experience at each stage of menopause (perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause) are all part of your body’s adaptation to these changes.

How long does menopause last?
Menopause describes the 12 months in which there is no menstrual cycle. The period before menopause can last eight to 10 years (perimenopause). The period after menopause (postmenopause) will last until the end of your life. The average age of menopause is approximately 51.

What hormonal changes occur during menopause?
The changes we traditionally think of as “menopause” occur when your ovaries no longer produce high levels of hormones. Ovaries are reproductive glands that store eggs and release them into the fallopian tubes. They also produce testosterone, as well as the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Together, estrogen and progesterone control menstruation. Estrogen also affects how your body uses calcium and maintains blood cholesterol levels.

As menopause approaches, your ovaries no longer release eggs into the fallopian tubes and your last menstrual cycle occurs.

What is early menopause?
Menopause is considered to occur “naturally” when it occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, and is a normal part of aging. However, some people may experience early menopause as a result of either surgery (such as removal of the ovaries) or damage to the ovaries (such as chemotherapy or radiation). Menopause that occurs before the age of 45 is called early menopause. Menopause that occurs at age 40 or younger is considered premature menopause. When there is no medical or surgical cause for early menopause, it is called primary ovarian failure.

What are the symptoms of menopause?
If you start experiencing some or all of the following symptoms, you may be entering menopause:

Hot flashes (a sudden feeling of warmth throughout the body).
Night sweats and/or cold flashes.
Vaginal dryness; discomfort during sex.
Urinary urgency (an urgent need to urinate more frequently).
Difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
Emotional changes (irritability, mood swings, mild depression).
Dry skin, dry eyes or dry mouth.
People who are still in the menopause transition (perimenopause) may also experience:

Tenderness in breasts.
Worsening of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Irregular menstrual periods.
Periods that are heavier or lighter than normal.
Some people may also experience:

arrhythmia
Headache
Joint and muscle pains
Changes in libido.
Difficulty concentrating, memory loss (usually temporary).
Gaining weight.
Hair loss or thinning.
These symptoms may be a sign that the ovaries are producing less estrogen or increased fluctuations in hormone levels. Not all people experience all of these symptoms. However, those affected by new heartbeat symptoms, urinary changes, headaches, or other new medical problems should make sure there is no other cause for these symptoms.