When you think of the word 'menopause', what usually comes to mind is being in your 50s and getting ready to not have to deal with a pesky period anymore. However, it's possible to get to this stage – or just begin the process – when you're in your 20s or 30s, too.
What Exactly Is Menopause?
Menopause – or 'The Change' as many women refer to it – occurs when a woman stops ovulating and menstruation ceases. While the average age of menopause is 51, most women reach this stage between the ages of 45 and 55. But before menopause comes a phenomenon dubbed perimenopause, a transition phase that can last for several years and has similar symptoms to menopause, except you continue to have your period (although they might be irregular).
You've officially hit menopause after you're period-free for 12 months in a row. There are, however, some women who get there before the age of 40 – and this is known as premature menopause. This doesn't just affect women physically but emotionally too, especially if you want children but haven't had them yet. So pay attention to your body and look out for any signs that it might be giving you.
What Causes Premature Menopause?
The causes can be either natural or initiated by surgery or medical reasons:
Genetics – if your mother reached menopause in her 20s or 30s, you have a higher chance of hitting menopause early too.
Smoking – this increases your chance of hitting menopause early by up to 30 per cent.
Medical treatments – cancer treatments like chemotherapy or radiation treatments can damage your ovaries and, therefore, result in an end to menstruation. Or, if you've had your ovaries removed for whatever reason, you'll hit menopause right after.
Autoimmune diseases – in cases such as thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis, your body's immune system might mistakenly attack your ovaries, thereby preventing them from making hormones, resulting in your periods stopping altogether.
Unknown – unfortunately, the cause of many cases of premature menopause is unknown.
Symptoms of Premature Menopause
The signs of hitting menopause early are the same as getting there at a later age. If you have these symptoms, there are tests that your doctor can do to confirm whether or not you're experiencing premature menopause:
Changes to your menstrual cycle – this means your period becomes either irregular or you're somehow skipping them now and then as the months go by. Your cycle will generally get shorter (that is, your period occurs earlier and earlier each month) until your periods stop totally. Also take note of any changes in your monthly bleeding, especially if this is irregular. Do note that there are several other hormonal and lifestyle reasons that could be giving you irregular periods too, so don't panic if this is the only symptom you have; see a doctor as soon as you notice any changes.
Hot flashes – the most common symptom of menopause, this can happen just once a day or every hour. You could also get night sweats that affect you so badly it's hard to sleep.
Mood swings – it's hard to be in a good mood when you're going through some serious hormonal changes. And the other symptoms of hot flashes and sleepless nights won't be improving your mood either.
Vaginal dryness – this happens because menopause is a result of a drop in oestrogen levels. The amount of oestrogen you have is very important in keeping your vagina lubricated.
Decreased interest in sex – while this could also be due to the other symptom of vaginal dryness –indeed, pain during sex is a symptom too – a reduced interest in sex overall is common.
Weight gain – your weight might fluctuate as your body goes through these hormonal changes.
Psychological changes – if you feel like you can't concentrate and are anxious and irritable a lot of the time, you might be going through premature menopause.