If you are approaching middle age, chances are good you’re thinking about menopause. Menopause is the term used to describe the end of menstruation; a woman is considered menopausal when she has not had a period in 12 months. (Menopause is preceded by perimenopause, lasting four to eight years, during which periods become less regular until they stop completely.)
The changes of menopause begin when the ovaries no longer produce eggs. The ovaries produce fewer female hormones at this time, too. Two hormones made in the ovaries—estrogen and progesterone— help regulate a woman’s monthly period.
In the United States, the average age of menopause is 51 in nonsmokers, 49 in smokers, and it ranges on average from ages 47 to 55. Women younger than age 45 are considered to have “early” menopause. Those under 40 have “premature menopause,” which may introduce unique health concerns.
Though stories you have heard from other women may have you nervous or fearful about the symptoms of menopause, remember that each woman’s experience is unique. While you may experience common symptoms—which can include night sweats, hot flashes, and vaginal atrophy—recognizing that these changes are normal and natural and learning to manage them in a way that best suits your needs and priorities can help ease the challenges of this time. In fact, you may just find that the physical changes and opportunity for personal discovery at this phase of life make this a rich and empowering time.
Awaken To Opportunity
While there’s no doubt that some aspects of menopause can be difficult, this transition also presents an opportunity to embrace the positive changes and thrive.
- Bye-bye birth control. For some women the thought of putting their childbearing years in the rearview mirror is difficult to contemplate. One practical result of this change, however—no need for birth control—is a positive turn of events. The end of menstruation means the opportunity to enjoy a healthy intimate life without the risk of an unintended pregnancy. In fact, many women find sex to be more enjoyable when the prospect of pregnancy is gone.
- No more trips down the “feminine products” Let’s face it: for most women the monthly period is less than pleasant. While we all get used to the routine and discomfort of monthly bleeding, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a menopausal woman who says she misses buying tampons or pads or wishes she still battled the effects of premenstrual syndrome. An end to cramping, mood swings, bloating, and the expense of products we buy to manage our periods is a benefit of the end of menstruation.
- No more hormonal headaches. If you get migraines or headaches in conjunction with your menstrual cycle, you are suffering from hormonal headaches, which are typically accompanied by vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, and nausea. They occur because of fluctuating levels of hormones during the monthly cycle. Once you stop ovulating and having your period, these headaches should cease. Hormonal headaches can be quite debilitating and are a great reason to look forward to menopause.
- Shrinking uterine fibroids. If you are among the many women who have uterine fibroid tumors that are causing pressure and discomfort, menopause is a time to rejoice. These tumors typically stop growing and often shrink at menopause because of declining estrogen levels. If fibroids are putting pressure on your bladder, you will get much relief when they start to shrink.
- Time to shine. In a survey published by the National Institutes of Health, women reported feeling more free to focus on their own needs and goals after menopause. Lifestyle changes made possible by children’s increased independence, the possibility of retirement or a reduced work schedule, and any number of other factors create the opportunity for women to embrace a truly dynamic time in their lives. Discovery of new hobbies and adventures, more time with friends and family, and a chance to reflect on priorities and goals—all can be happy benefits of this phase in life.
- A chance to bond. Do you remember when you got your period for the first time? Do you remember the stories you swapped with girlfriends about this major life change? The same thing happens during menopause. When you experience a hot flash that sends you peeling off your jacket and reaching for a paper fan, other women your age are instantly sympathetic. Friendships often develop as you exchange coping stories and empathize with one another.
A New Chapter
Yes, menopause can bring uncomfortable symptoms, and many women find themselves dreading the change. But when you look a little closer, there are upsides as well. Give yourself a chance, and you just might find yourself looking forward to the potential for the growth and new experiences that menopause can bring.