Dealing with early menopause
The menopause is when a woman stops menstruating and is no longer able to get pregnant naturally. In the majority of women, the onset of the menopause occurs between 45-55 years of age (the average age in the UK is 51). An early (or ‘premature’) menopause is one that begins before the age of 45; some women experience this as young as in their teens.
What causes early menopause
Early menopause can:
– Occur naturally (i.e. “it runs in the family”)
– Be the result of some genetic conditions/diseases
– Be a side effect of some medication
– Be caused by surgery
Once a woman’s ovaries start producing lower amounts of certain hormones such as oestrogen this causes the menopause to begin. Conditions that can increase the chances of early menopause include genetic chromosomal abnormalities such as Turner Syndrome, infections such as TB, malaria and mumps (although this is rare) or autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Some cancer treatments (chemotherapy and radiotherapy) and surgery to remove the ovaries or womb can also trigger early menopause.
Symptoms of menopause
The symptoms of early menopause are the same as standard menopause, just occurring at an earlier age. Common symptoms include:
– Night sweats
– Hot flushes (sometimes accompanied by dizziness, sweating and palpitations)
– Difficulty sleeping
– Vaginal dryness
– Low libido
– Mood swings
– Memory problems
– Lack of concentration
If your periods are becoming noticeably less frequent or have stopped altogether then it is definitely worth mentioning to your doctor. It is important that early menopause is diagnosed as soon as possible as it is linked to a higher risk of other medical conditions such as heart disease and osteoporosis (due to the lower oestrogen levels). Your doctor can make a diagnosis using blood tests and information about your symptoms and family history. Depending on your situation you may get referred to a specialist clinic, ensuring you receive the best treatment and support possible.
Hormone treatment for early menopause
As a natural part of a woman’s life, the menopause cannot be reversed, but an early menopause can be delayed using hormone treatment. Such treatments come in the form of the combined contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy (known as HRT). Unfortunately, women with breast cancer cannot be treated with hormone therapy. Although HRT is an effective treatment, it is also associated with increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease and blood clots.
Other treatments in development for early menopause
There are several new non-hormonal drugs in development that can help with reducing symptoms such as hot flushes, sleep interference and concentration. These treatments will provide alternative options for those who are unable to receive hormonal therapy or simply don’t want to.
Lifestyle changes that can help
There are also several lifestyle changes and natural remedies that may help with symptom management. Changes to diet such as avoiding hot spicy food and alcohol can help reduce hot flushes. Avoiding woollen clothing and wearing cotton clothing can also relieve the effects of hot flushes and night sweats. Load-bearing exercises can reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
The most distressing aspect of permanent early menopause is that it can affect your ability to have children naturally. For those women who may want children in the future, options include harvesting and storage of eggs and IVF, using donated eggs, surrogacy or adoption.
Going through an early menopause is difficult and upsetting and can have a severe impact on relationships. Emotional support is vital and it can be beneficial to join support networks and consider counselling. More information on support networks can be found here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/early-menopause/