Early menopause: 10 key facts you need to know

You probably expect to go through the menopause, when your periods stop, in your early 50s. However, some women can experience the menopause much sooner than that.

Around one woman in 100 experiences their periods stopping before they reach the age of 40. This is known medically as premature ovarian insufficiency (POI). And about 10 women in 100 go through the menopause between the ages of 40 and 45, known as ‘early menopause’.

The menopause happens when the ovaries stop making the hormones estrogen and progesterone which have an important role in women’s health and wellbeing, leading to unpleasant symptoms such as night sweats, hot flushes and low mood.

The average age for the menopause in the UK is 51 and most women experience it between the ages of 45 and 55.

Causes of POI or early menopause

Smoking, a family history, certain treatments such as cancer treatment and surgery such as a hysterectomy (removal of the womb) can bring on the menopause sooner. In many cases, there is no known cause for POI or early menopause.

For many women, going through the menopause sooner than expected can be distressing. They might feel as if they have somehow ‘failed’ as a woman, they have not completed their family yet, or they struggle to cope with unexpected menopausal symptoms. There are also health implications as an earlier menopause is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis (brittle bones), cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart and blood vessels) and poor memory.

This is why, if you have menopausal symptoms sooner than expected, you should arm yourself with the facts and see a qualified health professional for advice.

To help you along the way, here 10 key facts you need to know about early menopause:

Eat well: Some studies have suggested that Mediterranean and Japanese-style diets rich in wholegrains, legumes such as lentils and soya beans, and oily fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines, can help delay the onset of menopause or ease symptoms. More research is needed to establish any link between diet and menopause but following a healthy diet in general will benefit your overall health.

Look after your heart: You probably expect to go through the menopause, when your periods stop, in your early 50s. However, some women can experience the menopause much sooner than that.An Oxford University study published in the journal Heart found that women who went through the menopause before 47 had a 33 per cent higher risk of cardiovascular disease. This is likely to be due to being without the protective effect of the hormone estrogen for longer. Make sure you look after your heart by quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, keeping to a normal weight and drinking alcohol in moderation.

Protect your bones: Estrogen has a protective effect on bone health so going through the menopause sooner is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. Make sure you have a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, nutrients important for healthy bones.

Keep active: Regular exercise will boost your mood, to counter the depressive effects of the menopause, and help you stick to a healthy weight which will protect against heart disease. Weight-bearing exercise such as running, dancing or playing tennis, helps to boost bone health and reduce your risk of fractures.

Accept the change: It can be difficult to come to terms with menopausal symptoms years earlier than you expected. You might have wanted to start or add to your family, feel left out when friends talk about their periods, and have to cope with a range of menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats and low libido. It is important to take the necessary lifestyle changes that can help and seek the advice of a medical professional so that you can embrace this stage of your life rather than be limited by it.

Boost your mood: Feeling more positive can have a significant impact on how you cope with your symptoms. Try relaxation techniques, meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or other talking therapies, anything that will help you lift your mood and feel more positive.

Try HRT: Hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which replaces the hormones estrogen and progesterone that your ovaries are no longer producing, has a protective effect against heart disease and osteoporosis. It can also help with symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats. If you suffer from POI, your health professional will recommend that you take HRT until at least the natural age of menopause, around 51. Before stopping HRT, you should discuss this with your doctor.

Give complementary therapies a go: There are a range of complementary therapies which some women have found helpful to manage their symptoms. These include herbal therapies such as St John’s Wort for low mood or Black Cohosh for hot flushes to yoga and acupuncture for relaxation. You can try something to see if it works for you although remember that these remedies have not been subject to stringent clinical trials, unlike licensed medicines, and there is no evidence they will protect against heart disease or bone thinning.

You might still get pregnant: Although chances might be small, remember that you might still be able to get pregnant as you may still occasional ovulate. It is worth discussing this with your doctor and using contraception if you wish to avoid a pregnancy.

Boost your sex life: falling levels of estrogen and the hormone testosterone can lead to vaginal dryness and low libido, having an impact on your sex life. Talk to your doctor if this is affecting you. They can advise on water-based lubricants, topical hormone treatments and medicines for vaginal dryness and testosterone therapy to increase libido.

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