Menopause is a natural biological process that occurs in every woman’s life. It marks the permanent end of menstruation and fertility, meaning that a woman is no longer able to have children, confirmed when a woman ceases to menstruate for twelve consecutive months.
During this transition period, a woman’s ovaries cease to develop eggs and her body produces less estrogen and progesterone, ultimately causing her to no longer have a period.
The average onset of menopause in the United States is age 51, but the normal range is between the ages 45 and 55. Some women enter menopause before the age of 40, defined as premature menopause, which can be caused by many different factors including autoimmune disorders, smoking, the result of damage to the ovaries, or surgery, such as a hysterectomy.
Although menopause is a completely natural stage of a woman’s life cycle and not a disease, it is often accompanied by a series of uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms which can be alleviated by various forms of treatment.
Stages of Menopause
From the time a woman begins puberty until she enters menopause, a woman generally has the same monthly period, except when interrupted during pregnancy or another medical condition.
During the first half of a woman’s menstrual cycle, the ovaries—two glands located on either side of the uterus—produce higher levels of estrogen, which causes the lining of the uterus, known as the endometrium, to thicken. An egg in one of the ovaries starts to mature during this time.
On day 14 of woman’s menstrual cycle the egg is released, a process known as ovulation. After ovulation, the ovaries increase production of progesterone. If the egg is not fertilized, the levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease, leading the body to shed the lining of the uterus, causing a period.
As a woman approaches menopause, her ovaries produce less estrogen which can cause irregular periods. The term “menopause” is defined as a woman’s last menstrual cycle. Menopause is confirmed one year after a woman’s final period, confirming the permanent cessation of reproductive fertility.
Menopause is a process that naturally occurs over months and years. It is often defined by three stages:
Perimenopause begins several years before menopause, when a woman is still menstruating. A woman’s hormone levels may rise and fall because the ovaries are gradually producing less estrogen. This change can cause hot flashes or other menopausal symptoms. Perimenopause can last four to five years or longer, until menopause begins. Although it is possible to get pregnant during this time, it is not likely.
A woman enters menopause when twelve months have passed since her last period. At this point, her ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and the production of natural sex hormones- estrogen and progesterone, significantly decrease. This stage indicates an end to her reproductive fertility.
The years following menopausal changes in a woman’s body are called postmenopause. During this time, menopausal symptoms including night sweats and hot flashes ease for most women.