How much do you know about the menopause? Chances are, it’s not a lot.
Despite it being an experience most women will go through at some point in their lives, the menopause – and many of the potential symptoms it can cause – remains shrouded in mystery, with one in 10 women who go through the menopause still having ‘no idea’ what is happening and a third being too embarrassed to talk about their symptoms, according to recent research from Bupa Health Clinics.
On its own, that statistic is shocking enough. It’s yet another example of the lack of awareness surrounding women’s health issues, such as the number of women unaware that persistent bloating could be a sign of ovarian cancer, which can lead to women putting off or avoiding seeking help from a medical professional.
But on top of that, not knowing what is happening to your body can be incredibly overwhelming and stressful – especially for younger women dealing with early or premature menopause.
While early menopause is defined as menopause which occurs before 45 years of age (and affects around one in 100 women), premature menopause is menopause which occurs before the age of 40.
Going through both early and premature menopause can be hard enough – the change in hormones can lead to a range in symptoms including brain fog, a lack of energy and anxiety – but for those who aren’t able to identify what is happening, or are suddenly confronted with an unexpected diagnosis, it can be even more overwhelming.
Victoria, 41, was diagnosed with premature menopause at the age of 34. She says it was something that she found incredibly difficult to get used to.
“I was actually told I was in the menopause… that’s something very difficult to grasp,” she says. “I can feel very down and low, I can feel quite depressed, and then the hormone swings can create all sorts of mood swings.”
She continues: “If I could change one thing it would be that people were more educated around menopause, but specifically younger women.”
Caroline, now 57, also went through premature menopause in her thirties following a life-saving hysterectomy.
“They gave me the choice, so I kept my ovaries to stave off the menopause,” she explains. “However, my gynaecologist warned that even just having my uterus removed would probably accelerate the menopause. So, by the time I was 35, I was having hot flushes, night sweats and brain fog.”
Although going through early or premature menopause can be emotionally and physically draining, educating yourself on the signs and symptoms not only puts you in a better position to recognise them in yourself and others, but also puts you in better stead to seek treatment and advice from a medical professional.
We spoke to Dr Samantha Wild, women’s health lead for Bupa Health Clinics, to find out more about the various ways early menopause can manifest and the different kinds of treatment available.
What causes early menopause?
Early or premature menopause can happen for a number of reasons.
“For some, it happens naturally, or it could be a side effect for some cancer treatments, such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy or from having a hysterectomy,” Dr Wild explains.
Although doctors still don’t know the exact cause of why menopause naturally happens early for some, there are a number of factors that can put you at increased risk. These include:
- Family history (for example, if a close relative had an early menopause)
- A genetic disorder, like Turner’s syndrome
- An autoimmune condition such as type one diabetes or a thyroid problem
What are the signs of early menopause?
The signs of early menopause are similar to those of regular menopause – the main one being your periods becoming infrequent or stopping altogether. If this happens, Dr Wild says, it’s important that you speak to your doctor.
“Other widely known symptoms include hot flushes and night sweats,” she adds. “However, you can also experience brain fog, problems with short-term memory and poor concentration with early menopause. You may also experience headaches, palpitations, a low sex drive and a general lack of energy.”
On top of these more well-known symptoms, there are other, less-talked-about symptoms that might cause problems too, like a dry vagina and painful sex.
“It’s important to remember that your doctor is here to help and there are treatments available to ease these symptoms,” Dr Wild says.
Last but not least, Dr Wild warns that the menopause can affect your mental health, too – and it’s important to seek help if you feel this is the case.
“It’s very common for people going through the menopause to find that it does affect their mental health, too,” she explains. “This can lead to low self-confidence, low self-esteem, panic attacks and anxiety.”
How is early menopause diagnosed?
Once you’ve taken your concerns to a doctor, they should be able to diagnose you either based on your symptoms (both physical and mental) or through a blood test, Dr Wild explains.
“You may also have other tests to check your chromosomes (part of your DNA), bone density (to check for thinning bones), thyroid hormones (because a problem with your thyroid gland can cause similar symptoms and blood sugar, because diabetes can cause similar symptoms,” she says.
“In some cases, you may be referred to a specialist.”
What treatment is available for early menopause?
Once you’ve been diagnosed, there are plenty of different treatments available to help with both the physical and mental symptoms of early menopause.
“If you have early menopause you are at higher risk of premature coronary heart disease and osteoporosis, so treatment is really important,” Dr Wild explains.
“Having access to the right medication or understanding how to manage symptoms can have a life-changing impact on women during this transition in their lives, at whatever age it occurs.”
To help balance hormones and relieve symptoms, doctors will often prescribe the combined contraceptive pill or HRT, which can be taken in several ways, including in a tablet, or through patches and gels.
“You will likely take this until you reach the age of natural menopause (on average, this is when you reach 51 years old),” Dr Wild adds.
There are also a number of self-help measures which can be used to ease menopause symptoms, including eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
“If you are worried that you’re going through early or premature menopause, you should always speak to your GP,” Dr Wild recommends. “They’ll be able to help diagnose the menopause and offer you the right treatment to ease your symptoms.
“Remember – GPs are there to help and no problem is too ‘embarassing’.”