Menopause is a natural process that occurs as a woman’s ovaries stop producing eggs, and production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone declines. (Menopause can also occur if a woman’s ovaries are surgically removed.) Menopause usually happens gradually between the ages of 45 - 55. During this transition time, called “perimenopause,” menstrual periods become more irregular and begin to taper off. When menstrual periods have completely stopped for 12 months, a woman is considered to have reached menopause. On average, women reach menopause around the age of 51, but menopause can occur at younger or older ages.
During perimenopause, women may have various symptoms. Symptoms vary among women, and may range from mild to severe. Some women have no symptoms.
Hot flashes, an intense sudden build-up of body heat, are the most common symptom. Other symptoms can include vaginal dryness, sleep disturbances, and mood changes. These symptoms are caused by changes in estrogen and progesterone levels. After most women pass through menopause, many symptoms eventually subside and disappear.
Menopause is a natural condition. It is not a disease that needs medical treatment. However, some women seek treatment for the relief of perimenopausal symptoms -- especially hot flashes. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is the most effective drug treatment for hot flashes, but long-term use (more than 5 - 7 years) can increase the risks of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, blood clots in the lungs, breast cancer, and endometrial cancer. Therefore, doctors recommend that women who use HRT should take the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible time.
Other prescription drugs, such as antidepressants, are also sometimes used to manage hot flashes and mood changes. Although some women try herbal remedies for symptom management, little scientific evidence supports their effectiveness.
Menopause and Heart Health
When a woman reaches menopause, her risk for heart disease increases. It is important for postmenopausal women to follow preventive lifestyle modifications (healthy diet, exercise, not smoking) to ensure heart health.
Review Date: 07/26/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.