Two experts break down the common symptoms and causes.
So many women go through menopause at some point in their lives, and yet it remains, in many ways, swept underneath the rug and rarely discussed, like so many other topics surrounding women’s health (what else is new?). To help combat the stigma around it, let’s talk about menopause and all the glorious, and some not so glorious, stages of this change of life!
Let’s start with the basics: what is menopause exactly? Menopause is the stage in life when your period stops permanently. It’s diagnosed after having no menstrual period for one year. The average age for menopause in the United States is 51. While the age you experience it can vary, it typically occurs in your 40s or 50s.
Some women can go through this phase on the earlier end of that spectrum — in fact, starting this cycle between the ages of 40 and 45 is known as early menopause. According to The North American Menopause Society, 5 percent of women experience early menopause. It’s important to know that early menopause shouldn’t be confused with premature menopause or premature ovarian insufficiency, which happens before age 40.
To help us break down early menopause, we turned Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., OB/GYN, and Stephanie Faubion, MD, the medical director of The North American Menopause Society.
What are the early menopause symptoms?
That depends on why the woman is experiencing early menopause. For some, early menopause symptoms will be the same as regular menopause symptoms. The most common sign of menopause is vasomotor symptoms — or what we know as hot flashes. There’s also difficulty sleeping, impaired concentration, mood swings, and vaginal dryness.
But the severity of symptoms can also vary depending on the type of menopause. For instance, women who have had their ovaries surgically removed — whether because of cancer or high risk for it — tend to experience a more sudden onset of these symptoms and they tend to be much more extreme, according to Dr. Faubion.
On the other hand, if a woman is going through menopause earlier than normal due to genetic mutation or predisposition, then Dr. Faubion says these symptoms might be more sporadic and happen over the course of several months or even years. “Women might have normal menstrual cycles for a few months and then have hot flashes and night sweats and no menstrual cycles for a few months,” she tells us.
What causes early menopause?
This remains a big mystery. Dr. Faubion estimates that about 75 percent to 90 percent of cases don’t have an identifiable cause.
But understanding your family history could provide you with some key clues, according to Dr. Minkin, who’s also a professor at Yale School of Medicine. “If your mom or sister went through it very early, you have a higher likelihood of going through it early,” she tells us.
In some cases, early menopause can be induced by the surgical removal of ovaries or by medical treatments, such as chemotherapy, and even certain viruses like mumps and HIV. Both doctors recommend avoiding unhealthy habits, like smoking, which they say is linked to the early onset of menopause.
It’s true: the effect of smoking on menopause has been the focus of many studies — and the conclusion? Overall, it’s linked to early menopause. In a study of more than 93,000 women, smokers can start menopause about a year earlier than nonsmokers, while heavy smokers can start almost two years sooner than the average age of when most women start menopause.
How is early menopause diagnosed?
Most women are able to recognize the tell-tale signs and symptoms of menopause. But if you have concerns about irregular periods or hot flashes, then it’s best to talk with your doctor.
While tests aren’t typically necessary to diagnose menopause, Dr. Faubion said there may be some exceptions under certain circumstances. For instance, your doctor may recommend blood tests to check your level of your follicle-stimulating, and thyroid-stimulating hormones. In the latter case, an underactive thyroid can cause symptoms similar to those of menopause.
How is early menopause treated?
Hormones are key to treating early menopause. Unless you’re at high risk for certain cancers like ovarian or breast cancer, hormone therapy or hormone replacement therapy is the general recommendation, according to our experts. With the help of this treatment, a woman is able to replace the hormones her body stopped making during menopause.
Dr. Faubion says this type of therapy — which comes in pill, cream, or even ring form — is crucial because most women need to have estrogen and ovarian hormones until at least age 50 or they will likely face serious health risks, such as bone loss (osteoporosis) or cardiovascular disease.
“We’re not giving you anything extra that you wouldn’t have had — in other words, we’re just giving you back what you would have made naturally,” she explains. In addition to cancer, this type of therapy also comes with its own set of risks, including blood clots and heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. But it’s better to talk with your doctor to assess your own, individualized health risks and responses.
There are also some over-the-counter products to treat the symptoms. Dr. Minkin recommends that you invest in some good products, many of which she says don’t even require a prescription. For instance, our friends at the health and wellness brand, Kindra, have a whole host of estrogen-free products dedicated to menopausal women. The two that could be the most beneficial are the daily vaginal lotion to help ease any vaginal dryness that you might be experiencing, and the specially designed core supplements that include a potent antioxidant called Pycnogenol to help ease some of your most uncomfortable symptoms like hot flashes.
Does starting menopause early have any health benefits?
In short, it has some. Dr. Faubion says hitting menopause early can reduce your risk for ovarian cancer by about 95 percent if you’ve had your ovaries removed, and your risk of breast cancer by about 50 percent. But both experts agree that the negatives far outweigh the positives. On top of increasing your risk of heart disease and bone loss, it can also lead to early death and dementia.
“If you think you are going through menopause early, and you haven’t completed (or started!) growing your family, you definitely want to speak with a gynecologist to talk about it,” says Dr. Minkin.
Worried about what this means for having kids? Don’t stress just yet. Dr. Minkin says starting menopause early doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a future in planning for a family. Dr. Minkin says there are some therapies that can “enhance your fertility.”
“Indeed women with premature menopause are very good candidates for donor eggs,” she says. “That’s why the whole process of donor eggs was started — for young women with premature menopause.”
The information provided on this site isn’t intended as medical advice, and shouldn’t replace professional medical treatment. Consult your doctor with any serious health concerns.