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10 questions about the menopause answered

Menopause is a fact of life many don't think about until they have to. Women in their reproductive years are often more concerned about birth control and STDs. Men don't experience menopause, although they do undergo similar age-related changes. In recent years, more women have started discussing menopause. Although they are more open about it, some are still left with questions.

What is the menopause?

The menopause occurs in a woman after age-related declines in hormones cause her to stop menstruating. The main hormones that decline during menopause are oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. A woman is considered to be fully in menopause after 12 months without menstruation. After this time, pregnancy is unlikely.

What age does the menopause hit?

On average, women hit the menopause between 45 and 55 years of age. A woman may begin to experience fewer periods as she approaches menopause, or she may stop menstruating suddenly. One in 100 women hit menopause before age 40 - this is called premature menopause and is usually caused by ovarian failure, damage to the ovaries or surgical removal of the ovaries.

How long does the menopause last?

On average, the menopause lasts about four years. The time leading up to menopause is called perimenopause and the time after menopause is called post menopause. Symptoms begin to develop during the perimenopause and ease off during the post menopause.

What are the symptoms of the menopause?

Some common symptoms are:

  • changes in mood
  • chills
  • dry skin
  • hot flashes
  • irregular periods
  • loss of breast fullness
  • night sweats
  • sleep problems
  • slow metabolism and weight gain
  • thinning hair
  • vaginal dryness

How is the menopause diagnosed?

Doctors typically diagnose the menopause based on the description of the symptoms, though some women experience few symptoms. There is no test to determine whether a woman over the age of 45 is menopausal.

When is it safe to stop using contraceptive pills?

The combined pill can mask symptoms of the menopause, making it difficult to diagnose. Thus, it is recommended to stop taking combined contraceptive pills before the age of 50 and switch to another form of contraception, such as the progestogen-only pill, also known as the mini pill.

Of course, condoms are the only contraceptive method which can prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). They can be used after the menopause.

Can the menopause affect hair and skin?

Yes. During the menopause, androgen levels increase. Androgens, such as testosterone, determine male characteristics, such as face and body hair. As a consequence, some women may notice an increase in facial and body hair. The drop in oestrogen and progesterone slows down the growth of hair, causing hair on the scalp to appear thin.

Since the body stops making as much collagen during menopause, skin loses elasticity and becomes dry. This can create sagging skin around the cheeks and jawline, as well as increase the appearance of wrinkles around the eyes.

Is it possible to delay the menopause?

One study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that women who eat a diet rich in fish, legumes, beans, B12 and zinc hit the menopause later than women who's diet contained simple carbohydrates, such as refined rice and pasta.

Another US study showed that women who ate more low-fat milk products delayed menopause by over three and a half years. It's thought that enzymes in the cow milk could boost oestrogen levels.

However, the findings of both of these studies only demonstrated that there was a possible relation between the factors, but not a probable cause. That is to say that while diet may have an affect on the age at which women hit the menopause, there are a number of other factors to consider which could influence the cessation of the menstrual cycle - the primary indicator of the menopause.

How does a partial hysterectomy affect the menopause?

A partial hysterectomy removes just the but the cervix and ovaries remain intact. Evidence indicates that women who undergo a partial hysterectomy are at an increased risk of ovarian failure, and hence, early menopause. It is not known if this is caused by the hysterectomy itself, or another pre-existing cause.

Is there a cure for menopause?

While there is no cure for the menopause, there are a variety of treatments to manage the symptoms. If you suffer from uncomfortable symptoms, there are treatments available to manage the symptoms and bring relief. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a common menopause treatment that's available online.

After the menopause transition is complete, most symptoms either disappear or subside to a more manageable level. Women no longer have to worry about birth control or monthly menstrual cycles. They are now free to enjoy life on their own terms.