Learning About Menopause

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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 their childbearing years are ending. 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 can you expect with 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, dryer, wrinkled skin after menopause. The vaginal lining and the lower urinary tract also thin and weaken. This can make it hard to have sex. It can also increase the risk of vaginal and urinary tract infections.

What are the symptoms?

  • Lighter or heavier periods. Your menstrual cycle may be longer or shorter. You may skip periods.
  • Hot flashes. You may have a sudden feeling of intense body heat. You may sweat, and your head, neck, and chest may get red. Along with hot flashes, you may have a heartbeat that's too fast or not regular. You may also feel anxious or grouchy. In rare cases you might feel panic.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Mood swings or feeling grouchy, depressed, or worried.
  • Problems with remembering or thinking clearly.
  • Vaginal dryness.

Some women have only a few mild symptoms. Others have severe symptoms that disrupt their sleep and daily lives. 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 some women may have symptoms that don't go away.

How are menopause symptoms treated?

If you have mild symptoms, you may get some relief if you eat healthy foods, exercise, and lower your stress. Some women choose to take medicines if they have severe symptoms that aren't helped by making changes to their lifestyle.

Lifestyle changes

  • Choose a heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated fat. It should include plenty of fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, and high-fiber grains and breads. Be sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D to help your bones stay strong. Low-fat or nonfat dairy products are a great source of calcium.
  • Get regular exercise. Exercise can help you manage your weight, keep your heart and bones strong, and lift your mood.
  • Limit caffeine, alcohol, and stress. These things can 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 are severe, talk with your doctor. You may want to try prescription medicines, such as:

  • Low-dose birth control pills before menopause.
  • Low-dose hormone therapy (HT) after menopause.
  • Antidepressants.
  • A medicine called clonidine (Catapres) that is usually used to treat high blood pressure.

All medicines for menopause symptoms have possible risks or side effects. A very small number of women develop serious health problems when 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:

  • Breathing exercises. They may help reduce hot flashes and emotional symptoms.
  • Soy. Some women 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 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 http://www.healthwise.net/ed

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