There Is More to Menopause Than the End of Your Monthly Period

April 20, 2021

We typically think that a woman enters menopause when it’s been twelve months since her last menstrual period – in fact, the word menopause literally means “the end of monthly cycles.” However, even before your periods end, major hormonal changes are occurring in your body. These changes can last for years and they affect each woman differently.

AltaMed is here to help provide some answers and guidance about what you or your partner may be experiencing or expecting as you approach your mid-40s and 50s.

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A Change in Hormones

The transition toward menopause starts as the ovaries produce less of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. This stage is called perimenopause. It typically starts between 45 and 51 years of age, but some women begin perimenopause in their 30s. Perimenopause can last between four and eight years.

A number of symptoms can appear during this time, including:

  • A change in periods. They become irregular, can be shorter or longer, and can be heavier or lighter.

  • Hot flashes or night sweats

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Vaginal dryness

  • Mood swings Depression

  • Trouble focusing

  • Hair loss or change in texture (e.g., becoming drier or more brittle)

  • More facial hair

  • Weight gain

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Hormone Therapy May Help

Menopause symptoms can lead women to seek relief from their doctors, who may recommend hormone therapy (also called hormone replacement therapy). These treatments are intended to lessen the severity of the symptoms and make up for reduced levels of estrogen and progesterone. It may include just estrogen, just progestin, a combination of the two, or a combination of estrogen and other medications.

Hormone therapy is not right for everyone. Some women experience moderate side effects, which may include fluid retention and mood swings. Some types of therapy may increase the risks of blood clots and stroke. It is important to ask your health care provider about the different options and make sure they are aware of any medical conditions you have.

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Health Concerns with Menopause

Everyone faces increased health risks as they get older. Women, however, face higher risks of developing certain conditions because their estrogen and progesterone levels are extremely low due to menopause. Those conditions include:

  • Heart disease — Estrogen helps blood vessels stay relaxed. Once it’s gone, cholesterol can start building up on artery walls.

  • Stroke — The risk doubles every decade after 55. Cholesterol build-up is another potential culprit.

  • Osteoporosis — Without estrogen, women lose bone mass more quickly, which could cause bones to break more easily.

  • Unhealthy levels of lead in the blood — Any lead exposure over a lifetime is stored in the bones. If the bones are breaking down because of osteoporosis, the lead may be released into the blood. That increases the risk of high blood pressure and a hardening of the arteries. It can also make it harder to think.

  • Urinary incontinence — Lower estrogen levels could weaken the urethra making it harder to control urination.

  • Oral issues — Dry mouth can become a problem after menopause and increase the risk of cavities.

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Taking Control of Your Health

Menopause doesn’t have to be a troublesome time. Being healthy can help you have more success dealing with these age-related changes.

  • Quit smoking — Smoking damages bones and can lead to heart disease.

  • Exercise — Just 30 minutes of physical activity a day helps the bones, heart, and mood. Weight-bearing exercise (anything where you’re on your feet and resisting gravity) can help strengthen your bones and fight osteoporosis.

  • Eat well — Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, and lean proteins to fuel your body.

  • Supplements — As you age, you may need more B12, B6, and Vitamin D. Ask your doctor for recommendations.

  • Practice safe sex — You can’t get pregnant after menopause, but you can still get a sexually transmitted infection from unprotected sex.

  • Seek out counseling if you need it: Mood swings and feelings of depression or anxiety are common at this time. Don’t dismiss these feelings as “just hormones.” If these negative feelings persist and interfere with your ability to enjoy your life, seek help.

Keep Coming to AltaMed for Age-Appropriate Well-Woman Visits

All women need regular checkups and screenings throughout their lives, including before, during, and after menopause. Mammograms are recommended through the age of 75. Women who still have their cervix should get regular Pap and HPV tests every five years until age 65.

AltaMed is here to help women live their happiest, healthiest lives. Our services include well-woman exams, routine screenings, mammograms, behavioral health, testing for STIs, and more. Many of those services are free. You can always contact AltaMed for any questions about women’s health, no matter your stage of life.

Call us at (888) 499-9303 to schedule an appointment with your provider or visit altamed.org/womens-health for more information.

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