It’s the life-blood of many a stand-up and even the subject of a musical, but when it comes to the menopause, the reality can be far from funny. And despite the fact that it is something we women will inevitably face (or already have done), it seems that this is an area that is strictly off-limits.
A number of my friends have either gone through, or are going through ‘The Change’, (yes sounds like a dodgy 70s werewolf film – but it’s a lot scarier). And they’ve had very different experiences. For some, it hasn’t been an issue at all. But for others, it’s been life-shattering. For many women, the menopause is as stressful as puberty – perhaps more so, in that they had no preparation for what was to follow. Whilst we’re getting better at recognising the significance for girls of periods starting, we’re not so prepared for the fall-out for women when they stop.
Here’s a few comments;
‘No-body talks about it’. ‘I feel so alone’. ‘Am I going crazy?’ ‘It’s blown my world apart. I no longer know who I am or what’s going on’. ‘My body feels like the enemy’. ‘I’m out of control’.
Even if you’re a guy, or a girl for whom this seems like a long way off, chances are that someone close to you is going through ‘the change’. Given the fact that Western women in particular live much longer than they used to, many of us will spend a third of our lives in what’s referred to as post-menopause. Women with a history of depression are 20 per cent more likely to experience it early. Stress, smoking and poor diet can also speed it up. So even if it’s not yet you, it’s worth thinking about.
The facts: Menopause occurs when levels of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone fall and the body stops producing eggs. It usually happens in a woman’s early to late 40s or 50s. Average age for a woman’s last period is 51. Actual menopause is when a woman’s periods stop – but the symptoms can manifest 10-15 years earlier, (‘Perimenopause’).
Symptoms vary, but can include irregular periods, hot flushes or night sweats, difficulty sleeping either getting to sleep or staying asleep, mood swings including anxiety or irritability, heart palpitations, dry skin, hair loss, tiredness, decreased sexual desire and incontinence and weight gain. Depression can also occur – this can be linked to decreased levels of oestrogen and fear of getting older, or it could be simply that not enough sleep sends all of us a bit crazy, especially when your sex drive’s also gone out the window. And given that you’re already sweatier than an Saint Bernard in a sauna, a hot chocolate just won’t hit the spot.
In addition this change often occurs at the same time as other significant stresses – ‘empty-nest syndrome’ (when kids leave home), the birth of grandchildren, (making you A Grandma ) and having to deal with caring for and/or losing elderly parents.
Medical interventions include HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), where women are given either estrogen and progestin or, if they’ve had a hysterectomy, just estrogen. These used to come in tablet form, but can now be obtained in patches, gels, spray and implants. There are some concerns that they can increase risk of heart attacks, cancer or strokes. Alternatives include some SSRI antidepressants or blood pressure meds, which can alleviate hot flushes.
There are many sources of support for women experiencing the menopause including GPs, websites (e.g; http://www.menopausesupport.org.uk/ or http://www.talkmenopause.com/) and support groups. Just because some of your friends sail through it, doesn’t mean that you’re odd if you’re struggling – nor than you’re alone. Just because your periods stop, doesn’t mean your life has to.