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The menopause is a natural stage in a woman’s life. Here’s what you need to know.
While the menopause is a normal part of the aging process in women, both its development and the condition itself can be a difficult and stressful time. For some women the symptoms of the menopause can have a significant effect on everyday life, but there are several treatments available to reduce their impact. We answer some of your most commonly asked questions on the menopause, below.
What is the menopause?
Also called the “change of life”, the menopause occurs when a woman stops menstruating due to a fall in the production of oestrogen by her body. In other words, her body stops making eggs and she can no longer become pregnant naturally.
The menopause has two stages. The peri or pre-menopausal stage occurs in the lead-up to the menopause, and women may have both physical and mental symptoms during this time. When it’s been a year since her last period, a woman is said to be post-menopausal.
When does it occur?
The menopause usually takes place in women between the ages of 45 and 55. In the UK it occurs on average in women aged 51. Around 1 in 100 women experience the menopause before 40; this is known as premature menopause or premature ovarian insufficiency.
What causes the menopause?
As we age, the balance of sexual hormones in the body changes. In women, this means the ovaries produce less oestrogen, which triggers the menopause.
We often don’t know why premature menopause occurs in women, although it is often the result of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and some breast cancer treatments. An oophorectomy - the removal of the ovaries – can also trigger premature menopause, as can certain medical conditions such as Down’s Syndrome.
What are the symptoms of the menopause?
Eight in ten women will experience symptoms in the run-up to the menopause, and they can start months or even years before your periods actually stop. They normally continue for four years after your last period. Some symptoms can severely impact a woman’s day-to-day life.
The first sign you’ll usually notice is a change in your menstrual cycle; you’ll either get your period more frequently or not at all for months at a time. Some women will also have heavier periods than usual.
Other symptoms include hot flushes and night sweats, difficulty sleeping, and memory and concentration loss. Women can also suffer from a low sex drive and vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex.
While your GP or gynaecologist can usually determine whether you are menopausal based on your symptoms, a blood test is usually used to check hormone levels where a case of premature menopause is suspected.
How can you treat the symptoms of the menopause?
If you only suffer from mild symptoms of the menopause, these can often be managed by changes to diet and lifestyle, such as eating healthy and balanced meals and keeping strong and fit through regular exercise.
When menopausal symptoms are causing a more detrimental impact to your life, there are a number of treatments available. These include hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which replaces oestrogen in the body during the pre-menopausal stage. HRT not only relieves many of the common symptoms of the menopause, it can also help prevent osteoporosis, as well as colon and rectal cancers. If you cannot or do not want to take HRT, speak to your doctor about other options that are available.
For vaginal dryness, there are several lubricants and creams on offer to relieve discomfort.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is also used to help women suffering from depression or anxiety as a result of the menopause.
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