Many women assume menopause will hit in their 50s, bringing all of the symptoms with it. However, one thing many women don’t realize is that the decline in estrogen that accompanies menopause is gradual, beginning as their reproductive years wind down. For some women, however, menopause begins early, leaving them to deal with symptoms they weren’t yet prepared to face. Here are a few helpful tips for dealing with early onset menopause.
How Early Can Menopause Start?
When menopause occurs before the age of 40, it is called “premature menopause.” “Early menopause” refers to menopause occurring between the ages of 40 and 45. Early menopause and, especially, premature menopause are rare, and doctors have begun to refer to these conditions under the terms “primary ovarian insufficiency” and “premature ovarian failure” in order to remove the stigma of “menopause” from the condition for younger women.
Women undergoing ovarian removal surgery (oophorectomy) or certain cancers may be subject to early or premature menopause due to chemotherapy or radiation causing damage to the ovaries. Smoking has also been cited as a cause. Family history and conditions like thyroid disease could also be contributing factors.
Symptoms of Early Menopause
Cessation of a woman’s menstrual cycle is not in itself a sign of early or premature menopause. Other factors can cause irregular menstrual cycles, including medication, weight issues, and other medical conditions. If you notice that your menstrual cycles have changed dramatically, it is important to consult your doctor to determine the cause.
For women suffering premature or early menopause, the symptoms will likely mirror traditional menopausal conditions. These symptoms may include any combination of the following: hot flashes, fatigue, memory loss or inability to concentrate, vaginal dryness, or increased sex drive.
If your doctor suspects you may be suffering early menopause, he or she will likely test your estrogen and progesterone levels. If these are low, further tests may be ordered to check your ovarian health. While it may be unpleasant to learn of ovarian malfunction, it is important to diagnose problems as early as possible so that treatment may begin.
The early cessation of hormone production has been found to have adverse effects on a woman’s health, including an increased risk of death. Researchers have connected early menopause with cardiovascular and neurological disease, as well as increased risk for osteoporosis. Hormone replacement treatments may curtail some of these effects, but no treatment can eliminate all risks.
Unfortunately, for women suffering menopause early, infertility may result. This is especially disturbing for women who undergo premature menopause, as it can occur during those critical childbearing years. It is important to note, however, that unlike menopause, during early or premature menopause, a woman still has an ability to get pregnant. That ability just may be gradually reduced with each passing year.
Coping with Premature and Early Menopause
Due to the increased risks associated with early or premature menopause, your doctor will likely prescribe treatment to help reduce future health problems. However, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to reduce symptoms.
Hot flashes will likely be among the more uncomfortable things you go through during early or premature menopause. Staying cool by keeping a fan around and dressing in layers that may be removed throughout the day will help ease your discomfort. If you smoke, it is important to stop as soon as possible. If this isn’t an option, the less you can smoke, the better. Avoid alcohol and even spicy foods, as these are believed to exacerbate symptoms, especially hot flashes. And physical activity will help reduce symptoms, as well as increasing your overall feeling of well-being. If possible, remove as many stressors from your life, since stress can aggravate symptoms as well.
Emotionally, a diagnosis of ovarian failure may require a different kind of treatment. For women coping with the infertility that may result after this malfunction, support groups and counseling are available. But many other women may need support in dealing with the natural mood swings and depression that are symptomatic of menopause. In addition to these symptoms, a woman may feel that menopause is a milestone she wasn’t yet ready to cross. By discussing these issues openly and honestly with her doctor, as well as family members, the patient will have the support system she’ll need in the months to come.