Menopause is a normal transition in a woman’s life that spans several years and marks the end of the ability to bear children. During this time, age-related changes in the ovaries will cause them to become smaller and stop releasing the hormones progesterone and estrogen. It is important to note that menopause does not occur all at once unless a woman has had her uterus or ovaries removed through surgery. Instead, women will slowly progress through the three main stages of menopause until their menstrual cycles finally cease.
The First Stage: Periomenopause
The first stage of menopause typically begins when a woman is in her late 40’s, but it can occur as early as 35 years of age.
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This stage usually lasts about 3 to 5 years, and women may begin to notice changes in their menstrual cycle during this time such as irregularity or the amount of their flow. Other symptoms that may occur during the first of the stages of menopause include the following:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Urinary issues
Women need to understand that they may still get pregnant at this stage, although their fertility is decreasing. Therefore, those who do not wish to conceive will need to continue using their preferred method of birth control until one full year has passed since they had a period. Hormonal therapy that includes progestin replacement can help to control menstrual bleeding and symptoms such as hot flashes.
The Second Stage: Menopause
Most women are in their early 50’s when they enter menopause. Out of all of the stages of menopause, this is the easiest to recognize. A woman is considered to have entered menopause when she has missed her period for a complete year without an obvious cause such as illness, pregnancy or medication. Although some women may not experience symptoms other than the cessation of menstruation at this stage, others will continue to struggle with mood changes and hot flashes if they do not take hormonal therapy or make lifestyle changes.
The Third Stage: Postmenopause
The last of the stages of menopause is postmenopause, and a woman enters this stage one year following her last missed period. While many women celebrate the end of their menstrual cycle, they can still experience many of the symptoms that occurred during the perimenopause stage. Many of these symptoms may have a negative impact upon a woman’s quality of life such as urinary incontinence or vaginal dryness that causes sexual discomfort. Throughout the postmenopausal years, the risk for developing osteoporosis and heart disease also increases due to the lack of estrogen.
While each of the stages of menopause can cause uncomfortable symptoms, many things can be done to eliminate the risk for disease and restore a woman’s quality of life. Lifestyle changes such as decreasing stress, exercise and eating a healthy diet can all be beneficial during this time. Hormone replacement therapy may also be prescribed to restore estrogen and progesterone back to comfortable levels. Finally, women should keep in mind that it is a common stage in life that all women will enter. By being aware of what to expect and their options, women can control their symptoms and enjoy this stage of life.