Menopause is defined as the state of an absence of menstrual periods for 12 months. The menopausal transition starts with varying menstrual cycle length and ends with the final menstrual period. Perimenopause is a term sometimes used and means “the time around menopause.” It is often used to refer to the menopausal transitional period. It is not officially a medical term but is sometimes used to explain certain aspects of the menopause transition in lay terms. “Postmenopausal” is a term used to as an adjective to refer to the time after menopause has occurred. For example, doctors may speak of a condition that occurs in “postmenopausal women.” This refers to women who have already reached menopause.
Menopause is the time in a woman’s life when the function of the ovaries ceases and she can no longer become pregnant. The ovary (female gonad), is one of a pair of reproductive glands in women. They are located in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus. Each ovary is about the size and shape of an almond. The ovaries produce eggs (ova) and female hormones such as estrogen. During each monthly menstrual cycle, an egg is released from one ovary. The egg travels from the ovary through a Fallopian tube to the uterus.
The ovaries are the main source of female hormones, which control the development of female body characteristics such as the breasts, body shape, and body hair. The hormones also regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. Estrogens also protect the bone. Therefore, a woman can develop osteoporosis (thinning of bone) later in life when her ovaries do not produce adequate estrogen.
Perimenopause is different for each woman. Scientists are still trying to identify all the factors that initiate and influence this transition period.
At what age does a woman typically reach menopause?
The average age of menopause is 51 years old. But there is no way to predict when an individual woman will have menopause or begin having symptoms suggestive of menopause. The age at which a woman starts having menstrual periods is also not related to the age of menopause onset. Most women reach menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, but menopause may occur as earlier as ages 30s or 40s, or may not occur until a woman reaches her 60s. As a rough “rule of thumb,” women tend to undergo menopause at an age similar to that of their mothers.
What are the symptoms of menopause?
You may be transitioning into menopause if you begin experiencing some or all of the following symptoms:
- Hot flashes (a sudden feeling of warmth that spreads over the body).
- Night sweats and/or cold flashes.
- Vaginal dryness; discomfort during sex.
- Urinary urgency (a pressing need to urinate more frequently).
- Difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
- Emotional changes (irritability, mood swings, mild depression).
- Dry skin, dry eyes or dry mouth.
Women who are still in the menopause transition (perimenopause) may also experience:
- Breast tenderness.
- Worsening of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
- Irregular periods or skipping periods.
- Periods that are heavier or lighter than usual.
Some women might also experience:
- Racing heart.
- Joint and muscle aches and pains.
- Changes in libido (sex drive).
- Difficulty concentrating, memory lapses (often temporary).
- Weight gain.
- Hair loss or thinning.
These symptoms can be a sign that the ovaries are producing less estrogen, or a sign of increased fluctuation (ups and downs) in hormone levels. Not all women get all of these symptoms.
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