Over the course of a typical woman’s lifetime, she will experience two or three important physical transitions. The first occurs when she has her period for the first time. The second is when she becomes pregnant and gives birth, and finally, when she experiences the onset of menopause. Among these physical milestones, menopause is far more likely to be an unhappy experience, due to the variety of unpleasant physical and emotional changes which can trigger a decline in health and quality of life.
Menopause is natural and inevitable, which means it happens to every woman. But why do some women suffer severe hot flashes, mood swings and sleep difficulty while others seem to take it in stride? Better Health turned to Dr. Preecha Hemachayati, an experienced women’s health specialist, to find out what women can do to prepare for a healthier and happier menopause.
MENSES: WHY DOES IT PAUSE?
Menopause typically begins around the age of 40, and as with menstruation, it affects different women in different ways. “Your menopause experience is highly personal,” Dr. Preecha says. “Menopause defines the point when a woman’s ovaries stop releasing eggs. Ovulation stops, and as a result, production of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone also comes to an end.”
“Menstruation begins when hormones from the endocrinal gland are produced to help stimulate the ovulation process,” Dr. Preecha continues. “Each month a new egg is released from its follicle. When the egg develops, it produces the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone which help thicken the lining of the uterus. The lining is then able to receive and nourish the fertilized egg, which later can develop into a fetus. If fertilization doesn’t occur, the lining breaks down. That’s how menstruation is triggered. This is a natural event to mark the end of a woman’s fertility.”
For Thai women, the onset of menopause begins later, typically around the age of 50, though the hormonal fluctuation resulting from the decline in ovary function may begin around the age of 30. Hormone production declines gradually until around the age of 40, when a more pronounced drop in hormone levels occurs, often producing severe menopausal symptoms.
“Menopause transition is the term we use to describe the time when a woman begins to have irregular menstruation and other menopausal symptoms,” Dr. Preecha explains. “When a woman has no menstrual period for 12 consecutive months, and it’s not related to another biological or physiological occurrence, we consider she has already entered into menopause.”
Each woman’s body is unique, and the menopause transition experience differs from one woman to another. About 15 to 20 per cent of women experience no menopausal symptoms at all (other than the end of menstrual periods). “Women usually are able to sense when they are nearing the onset of menopause,” says Dr. Preecha. “There are many symptoms that can be considered menopause warning signs. One of the most common and annoying symptoms women notice is when periods become irregular. They may be heavy one month and very light the next, and their duration can fluctuate greatly. Women may even miss periods in some months. These changes are a direct result of the change in hormone levels.”
Though irregular menstruation is a common sign of menopause and quite a normal experience for women in their 40s, it is always best to consult your doctor if you experience something abnormal. While irregular menstruation is usually a sign of the approach of menopause, in some cases it may be a symptom of a more serious uterine condition such as cancer. Dr. Preecha stresses the importance of looking out for possible signs of trouble: “If you already missed your period for several consecutive months, or you’ve already gone through menopause, and suddenly you have your period again, consult your doctor as soon as possible. And when you go for your annual check-up, be sure to tell your doctor about any previous menstruation abnormalities you’ve experienced.”
Besides abnormal periods, other symptoms that can signal the approach of menopause include:
- Hot flashes (about three out of four women report experiencing hot flashes and night sweats);
- Insomnia, difficulty sleeping, disturbance to normal sleep patterns, early morning awakening;
- Fatigue and lack of energy, usually caused by sleep disruptions;
- Mood swings;
- Vaginal dryness and reduced libido.
These symptoms are part of the normal physical transition that occurs during menopause, and they usually subside over time. For most women the symptoms are mild and can be relieved through medical and non-medical means. When symptoms are severe and debilitating, doctors usually recommend hormone therapy.
It’s important for women to be aware of the increased risks of at least two serious health conditions coronary artery disease and osteoporosis that are more likely to affect women in their later years, due in part to the decline in hormone production caused by menopause.
Lifestyle changes such as practicing good exercise and healthy nutrition habits can go a long way toward reducing a woman’s risk of coronary artery disease and osteoporosis and many other potential health threats. According to Dr. Preecha, taking a brisk 30-minute walk three to five times each week can be highly beneficial to overall health.
Dr. Preecha emphasizes the importance of maintaining good bone health. “If your bones are strong and healthy as you enter menopause,” she explains, “you will have better bone structure as you age. Women can improve their bone strength by making sure their diet is rich in calcium. Regular exercise also helps improve balance and coordination, muscle tone and flexibility. It lessens the risk of the dangerous falls and broken bones that occur more frequently as we age.”
Dr. Preecha added that life after menopause can be healthier and more fulfilling if women take control of their health.
PREPARING FOR MENOPAUSE
Menopause is a natural stage of life. It cannot be avoided, but women can prepare for its arrival. Here are some strategies to help ensure a smoother transition:
- Learn ahead of time about future physical changes that will occur;
- Educate your family so they will better understand menopause’s emotional and physical impact;
- With the help of your doctor, develop a health and wellness plan that includes health screenings, nutrition and exercise;
- To maintain bone strength and prevent fractures, consider a strength-training regimen with the advice of your doctor;
- Avoiding smoking, excess weight and heavy alcohol consumption helps improve cardiovascular health, reduces osteoporosis risk, and improves overall physical and emotional health;
- Consider taking calcium and vitamin D dietary supplements;
- Have regular health check-ups.
The onset of menopause doesn’t have to be a difficult experience. Post-menopausal life can be a time of good health, independence and fulfillment, just like your younger years. Start preparing now and enjoy a smoother, more graceful transition for the golden years to come.
DID YOU KNOW...?
By the year 2030, 1.2 billion women worldwide are expected to be age 50 and older;
- Before the age of 50, women have one-third the risk of suffering a heart attack compared to men. Ten years after menopause, when women are about 60, their heart attack risk increases to become equal to men;
- Osteoporosis – a disease that causes bones to become thin, brittle and more likely to fracture – will affect one in four women after menopause;
- A diet high in soy has been shown in some studies to reduce the frequency and severity of post-menopausal hot flashes;
- Fertility declines gradually as menopause approaches. However, you can still become pregnant even if your periods are irregular. The second highest unintended pregnancy rate occurs among women between the ages of 40 to 44. Thus, the need for appropriate family planning remains important.