When you ask a group of women about menopause, you may be surprised by how individualized the responses are. While letting some friends know about my new efforts writing this sharepost for HealthCentral, I was amazed at how willingly they shared their journey through menopause – and how varied their experiences have been. It also became quickly evident how much we all need to learn about this common experience.
This lack of knowledge shouldn't be surprising. “Throughout most of human history, the vast majority of women died before menopause. The average life expectancy for a woman in 1900 was only forty,” wrote Dr. Christiane Northrup in “The Wisdom of Menopause”. She notes that women today can expect to live until their mid-80s, which means – unlike previous generations – that they will live another 30-40 years after the onset of menopause. “The menopause you will experience is not your mother’s (or grandmother’s) menopause,” she said.
So let’s start with when menopause happens and when we start realizing that our body is changing. According to the HealthCentral site, “A woman is said to be in menopause after she has gone for one full year without periods. While most women in the United States go through menopause around the age of 51, a small number will experience menopause as early as age 40 or as late as their late 50s. Rarely, menopause occurs after age 60. When menopause is diagnosed before age 40, it is considered to be abnormal or premature menopause. Perimenopause, also known as the climacteric, includes the time before menopause when hormonal and biological changes and physical symptoms begin to occur. This period lasts for an average of three to five years.
In my informal interviews, I learned that for some women, menopause is caused by medical issues. “I had an emergency hysterectomy (while on vacation) at 30! Yes, that was a lovely way to spend time in Hawaii!” Kelly remembered.
In some cases, women realize that menopause is happening and are able to be proactive in dealing with the physical changes. “A woman knows her body by the time she is 40ish. I knew the moment or month I entered menopause. I told my doctor (a male) and he laughed. He said I was too young (at 45). I went to my ob/gyn (a female who happens to be MY AGE) and she said, ‘Let's address it!’ I never had another period,” said Jan, who is in her 50s.
However, life situations may prove to be a distraction from realizing that one’s body is changing. In my case, I believe I entered perimenopause while caring for my mother (who had Alzheimer’s disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) from 2005-2007, working, and pursuing a graduate degree. With so many challenging situations coming at me on almost a daily basis, I was totally focused on these external events instead of analyzing the changes I physically was beginning to undergo.
Life situations may not be the only reason behind lack of realization that a woman is experiencing the onset of menopause; instead, medications prescribed for other health issues may mask the symptoms. Judy, who is in her 50s, recounted, “I will say that my doc was cluing me into the possibility of perimenopause long before I was thinking about it. I had been on birth control pills for years due to dysmenorrea (really heavy periods for me), and when I was about 45, he took me off of them, as he said they could mask the symptoms of menopausal onset. This was fine by me - one less pill to try to remember daily! The periods are now subsiding (I've had about 5 in the last 14 months).
For some women, menopause may not come until well after age 50. Cindy shared, “I'm (almost) 53 and have yet to see any signs. My mother had a hysterectomy in her early 40's, and her mother died before she reached menopause, so I'm anxious to see how everything goes for me.” Another friend described a similar situation. “I don’t think I’m anywhere near it. I averaged one period a year from eighth grade through college,” Mary said. “Then I had three to four periods a year. I have no idea how I had two kids. Now that I’m 16 days away from 50, I’m getting my period monthly and have been for a little over a year. I’m sure I could wreck a lot of studies – or at least I would be outside the bell curve. I wonder if we start menopause because our eggs are getting used up or if it something else? If it’s the first thought, then I’ll probably be the only 80 year old getting hot flashes.
And overwhelmingly, women who I spoke with don’t know what to expect or do as their body changes. “Mine has just started and I haven't a clue what to do yet. Basically my periods got really irregular over the past few months (26 days, 35 days, 38 days, 24 days, etc.), and seemed to have stopped completely about 3 months ago,” Christina, who is nearing 50, noted. Kathy, who is in her 50s and has gone through menopause, agrees, "If I had only known what to expect--I'm not sure what I would have done differently but maybe I would have been better prepared for dealing with it."
Social stigma and generational differences seem to play a part of why information is not shared. “I have always had younger friends and no one wanted to talk with me about what I was going through. I had no one to turn to. My mother certainly would not talk about it. She was very old-fashioned and women concerns were not to be discussed. Thanks, Mom!” Jan said. “I knew eventually my younger friends would be older and going through this ‘trying time.’ Recently I've made a couple of older friends and it feels so good to be able to be understood."
It seems to me that women need to spend some time contemplating the changes we are experiencing, learning from each other what to expect, and deciding how we want our lives to be as we move forward. I agree with Dr. Northrup, who wrote, “As we break this silence we are also breaking cultural barriers, so that we can enter this new life phase with eyes wide open—in the company of more than 45 million kinswomen, all undergoing the same transformation at the same time."
Published On: December 15, 2009