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What is menopause?

Menopause is the end of menstruation. The word comes from the Greek mens, meaning monthly, and pausis, meaning cessation. Menopause is part of a woman's natural aging process when her ovaries produce lower levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone and when she is no longer able to become pregnant.

Unlike a woman’s first menstruation, which starts on a single day, the changes leading up to menopause happen over several years. The average age for menopause is 52. But menopause commonly happens anytime between the ages of 42 and 56.

A woman can say she has begun her menopause when she has not had a period for a full year.

What is ‘perimenopause’?

‘Perimenopause’ refers to the several years before menopause when a woman may begin experiencing the first signs of her menopausal transition. But many people use the term ‘menopause’ for both the perimenopausal years as well as the few years following menopause.

What are the signs of menopause?

Menopause is a natural process that happens to every woman as she grows older, and is not a medical problem, disease or illness. Still, some women may have a hard time because of the changes in hormone levels during menopause.

There are many possible signs of menopause and each woman feels them differently. Most women have no or few menopausal symptoms while some women have many moderate or severe symptoms.

The clearest signs of the start of menopause are irregular periods (when periods come closer together or further apart), and when blood flow becomes lighter or heavier.

Other signs may include some of the following:

  • weight gain;
  • hot flashes;
  • insomnia;
  • night sweats;
  • vaginal dryness;
  • joint pain;
  • fatigue;
  • short-term memory problems;
  • bowel upset;
  • dry eyes;
  • itchy skin;
  • mood swings; and
  • urinary tract infections.

Most of the time, these symptoms will lessen or go away after a woman has finished menopause.

Do all women experience menopause in the same way?

Menopause experiences are different among individual women, and also among women in different cultures and in different parts of the world.

Research has shown that women’s experience of menopause can be related to many things, including genetics, diet, lifestyle and social and cultural attitudes toward older women.

For example:

  • Japanese women report fewer hot flashes and other symptoms.
  • Thai women record a high incidence of headaches.
  • Scottish women record fewer severe symptoms.
  • Greek women report a high rate of hot flashes.
  • Mayan women report no symptoms.

Some scholars wonder if the North American emphasis on youth and lack of respect for older people contributes to a more difficult menopausal transition here.

The typical North American diet, high in saturated fats and sugars, along with our in-active lifestyle and low childbirth rate, may also contribute to the physical complaints common to many North American women at menopause.

What is "induced" menopause?

"Induced", "sudden" or "surgical" menopause happens when a woman goes through an immediate and premature menopause. This occurs when her ovaries no longer produce the hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.

This may be caused by:

  • surgery to remove your ovaries;
  • chemotherapy;
  • radiation treatment; or
  • ovarian malfunction.

Women going through induced menopause may have more severe menopausal symptoms, and are usually treated with hormone therapy.

How should I prepare for menopause?

Menopause is one of women’s many important natural life-stages. For some, it is a challenging period of difficult physical and emotional changes. For others, it is a time of personal growth and renewal. And for many women, it is both at the same time. They don't call it "Menopausal Zest" for nothing!

Here are some suggestions to help you enjoy your menopausal years to their fullest:

  • Learn about menopause through recent books, articles and other reading materials.
  • Talk to friends and relatives who have already gone through menopause.
  • Join a menopause or midlife support-group in your area.
  • Have a nutritious diet and enjoy regular exercise.
  • Manage your stress by balancing your work and social life.
  • Talk with your health care practitioner about your personal health concerns.
  • Know that you have choices and can take charge of your health.

Where can I go for more information?

Reviewed June 2006.