For most women in the United States, signs of menopause start to occur between the ages of 45 and 55, or on average, at about 51 years of age. Every woman has a unique and vast genetic background as well as many other factors that determine when she will start going through it. So, it’s important to keep an eye on your menstrual health as you approach those ages so that you aren’t blind-sided or ill-prepared. Some women experience the signs of menopause much earlier than the normal age range. This is called premature or early menopause.
What is menopause?
Most people know that for women, menopause means they have reached the time where their bodies are no longer able to produce a child. It is a natural biological process. Despite popular belief, women can stay healthy, energetic, and sexual for long afterwards. What exactly is going on inside that causes this to happen? In simple terms, as a woman gets older, there is a change in the balance of sex hormones. The hormone estrogen is not being produced as much by the ovaries, so they are no longer releasing an egg each month. This in turn affects the menstrual cycle.
The most common symptoms of menopause are irregular or stopped period, hot flashes/night sweats, vaginal dryness, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, and occasional memory/concentration impairment. After the period completely stops, women may continue experiencing certain symptoms for about four to five years. This is called the postmenopause phase.
What is premature/early menopause?
Early menopause occurs when for whatever reason, the ovaries stop making normal levels of hormones and periods stop at a younger age than usual. It should be noted there is a small but important distinction between “early” menopause and “premature” menopause. Early menopause, affecting about 5% of women, is when signs of menopause start showing between the ages of 40 and 45. Premature menopause, affecting about 1% of women, is when those signs start occurring before the age of 40. In both cases, they are characterized by their onset before the typical ages of 45-55 in women. The earlier it comes, though, the more important it is for you to see a licensed physician so they can confirm what you are experiencing and also determine the cause.
The signs of both premature and early menopause are basically all the signs you’d be seeing at a “normal” menopause age. The exception is that they are occurring much sooner. Irregular periods (missed, lighter, or heavier than usual), hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, cognitive changes, etc. Not to be confused with premature or early menopause, these all occur in the transition stage of menopause called perimenopause. This stage stops and moves to postmenopause when the period completely stops for 12 months. If what you’re experiencing fits all the above and you’re not getting period anymore, you are going through it (to answer the title question). To confirm, see your physician.
Potential reasons it could be occurring
There are several potential causes of premature/early menopause. These depend on the woman’s lifestyle, medication, and genetics, though most of them are not much reason for concern. Generally, women tend to hit menopause the same age their mothers did. So, genetics can be a reason for early menopause. Women who smoke and are underweight also tend to have an earlier menopause. Additionally, receiving some sort of radiation treatment or chemotherapy for cancer can cause menopause to come about sooner. Surgery to remove the uterus or ovaries is another cause. Some health conditions, such as autoimmune disorders, have also been known to affect the ovaries and thereby causing early or premature menopause. Sometimes, and actually in many cases, there is no clear reason that early menopause is occurring.
Health Risks and Treatment
There are some associated health risks for women who go through premature or early menopause. These include heightened risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and depression. Some women also experience more severe menopause symptoms when it happens at a younger age. Depending on the cause, some physicians may prescribe treatment for premature menopause. They do so in order to protect the woman’s health and make up for missing hormones. The main treatments that would be administered are a combined contraceptive pill or some sort of hormone replacement therapy. If you’re experiencing signs of early menopause, it’s important to visit a physician. They can determine if treatment is the best option for your particular case.