Menopause doesn’t really seem to be a thing we talk about in normal conversation or by societal convention. I do not recall, for example, my mom or anyone from my high school talking to me about menopause in the same way I was taught what menstruation was or some other facet of female reproductive health. This left me wondering about the nature of taboo surrounding menopause. Many young women may assume that because menopause only occurs later in life, they do not need to pay attention now — out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. It made me wonder:
Is it important for us to understand menopause now, even though it will not impact us for years? The answer, I found, is absolutely yes!
Menopause is a natural biological process through which the ovaries stop releasing eggs and women cease to menstruate. Perimenopause, or the menopausal transition (MT), describes the period in a woman’s life, typically beginning in her 40s and lasting between seven and 14 years, as the ovaries slow the production of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. This often causes symptoms such as fatigue, hot flashes, weight gain, irritability, and depression. When it has been 12 full months since the last menstrual period, a woman is considered to have reached menopause. The average age of menopause in the United States is 51. At this point, a woman is no longer ovulating, and she is considered post-menopausal — a status she will have for the rest of her life.
But new research from this year suggests that woman may experience most menopause symptoms even earlier than we once thought. This late reproductive stage (LRS) can last for 10 years, and the severity of symptoms experienced by any one woman can be just as intense as they are in older women. Struggles with sleep, memory, and hot flashes can come as a surprise to women in their 30s.
Woman of all ages need to have conversations with their health care providers about these topics. And researchers need to continue investigating perimenopause symptoms in younger women. Thankfully, there are also some things young women should do now to improve their chances for better long-term health, particularly to help prevent two diseases that grow more common as women age and the protective effect of estrogen diminishes: osteoporosis and heart disease.
Osteoporosis describes a disease in which bones become fragile or thin and therefore prone to breaking. One in four women will break a bone due to osteoporosis in their lives. One haunting statistic mentions that 24 percent of patients aged 50 or older who fracture their hip die within a year. Thankfully, the severity of osteoporosis can be lessened if women embark on preventative health and wellness measures from a young age — about 90 percent of bone density in women is formed by the age of 18. A greater consumption of calcium and vitamin D-rich foods can help decrease risk factors for osteoporosis. It should be emphasized to young girls the importance of drinking milk or eating other calcium-rich foods (like spinach, kale, cheese, or yogurt) to help prevent osteoporosis when they are older.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in women and the risk for developing it increases after menopause. Because the average life expectancy for women is 81, many will live for three decades or more after menopause with this increased risk. MT confers many symptoms that put women at risk for heart disease like depression or sleep disturbance. And the earlier the onset of menopause, the higher the risk of CVD. To help prevent heart disease, the importance of a healthful diet and regular exercise should be emphasized early in a girl’s life.
For all these reasons, we should seek to have regular, early conversations about menopause — and all facets of women’s reproductive health. A tabooed and secretive nature surrounding these important health topics will only help to spread confusion and misinformation and put women’s heart and bone health at unnecessary risk. I plan to go into the rest of my 20s being more informed about myself and my body so that I can take care of it and live well. I hope that sharing this message with other women and girls will garner positive attitudes towards health, fitness, and well-being to impact more than just the way we view and understand menopause. Knowledge is power, and we can all benefit from continuing to learn about our bodies as we age.
Gillian is a junior at Timothy Dwight College studying Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Anthropology. Read more from Gillian on WHRY's blog: "Why Didn't I Know This?