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Learning About Menopause

What is menopause?

For most women, menopause is a natural process of aging. Menstrual periods gradually stop. The ability to become pregnant ends. Some women feel relief that they no longer have periods. But other women struggle with the physical and emotional changes that come with menopause.

For most women, menopause happens around age 50. But every woman's body has its own timeline. Some women stop having periods in their mid-40s. Others keep having periods well into their 50s.

And some women go through menopause early because of cancer treatment or surgery to remove the ovaries.

What happens during menopause?

  • It starts with perimenopause. This is the process of change that leads up to menopause. Perimenopause can start as early as your late 30s or as late as your early 50s. How long it lasts varies. But it usually lasts from 2 to 8 years.
  • During this time, your hormone levels will go up and down unevenly (fluctuate). This causes changes in your periods and other symptoms. In time, estrogen and progesterone levels drop enough that the menstrual cycle stops. Going a full year without having a period is usually considered menopause.
  • Low estrogen levels after menopause speed bone loss. This increases your risk of osteoporosis. Also, your risk of heart disease increases after menopause.
  • It's normal to have thinner, drier skin after menopause. The vaginal lining and the lower urinary tract also thin. This can make it hard to have sex. It can also increase the risk of vaginal and urinary tract infections.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Hot flashes.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Vaginal dryness.

Symptoms related to mood and thinking may also happen around the time of menopause. These include:

  • Mood swings or feeling grouchy, depressed, or worried.
  • Problems with remembering or thinking clearly.

You may have only a few mild symptoms. Or you might have severe symptoms that disrupt your sleep and daily life. Menopause caused by surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy can cause symptoms to be more severe. A condition you already had, such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, or irritability, can also make symptoms worse.

Symptoms tend to last or get worse the first year or more after menopause. Over time, hormones even out at low levels. Many symptoms improve or go away. But sometimes symptoms don't go away.

After menopause, you may get other symptoms. These include drying and thinning of the skin, and vaginal and urinary tract changes.

How are menopause symptoms treated?

If your symptoms are bothering you, there are lifestyle changes and treatments that can help.

Lifestyle changes

  • Choose heart-healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, fish, and whole grains. Limit foods that have a lot of salt, fat, and sugar. Be sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D to help your bones stay strong. Low-fat or non-fat dairy products are a great source of calcium.
  • Get regular exercise. It can help you manage your weight, keep your heart and bones strong, and lift your mood.
  • Limit caffeine, alcohol, and stress. These things may make symptoms worse. Limiting them may help you sleep better.
  • If you smoke, stop. Quitting smoking can reduce hot flashes and long-term health risks.

Medicines

If your symptoms bother you, talk with your doctor. You may want to try prescription medicines, such as:

  • Birth control pills before menopause.
  • Hormone therapy (HT).
  • Antidepressants.
  • Clonidine. This medicine is usually used to treat high blood pressure.

All medicines for menopause symptoms have possible risks or side effects. And there's a very small chance of serious health problems from taking hormone therapy. Be sure to talk to your doctor about your possible health risks before you start a treatment for menopause symptoms.

Other treatments

You can try:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy. This may help reduce hot flashes.
  • Hypnosis. This may help reduce the number and severity of hot flashes.
  • Breathing exercises. They may help reduce hot flashes and emotional symptoms.
  • Soy. Some people feel that eating lots of soy helps even out their menopause symptoms.
  • Yoga or biofeedback. They may help reduce stress.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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