Understanding Menopause

There are currently more than 32 million postmenopausal women in the United States. Menopause does not occur at a specific age, although most women go through menopause near midlife.

The middle years of a woman’s life are surrounded by more myth and mystery than any other season she confronts. These myths can cause much fear and anxiety in the lives of middle-aged women as they approach and deal with menopause and its effects.

What Is Menopause?

Menopause is a normal time in a woman’s life when her ovaries begin to shut down the production of the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Testosterone is usually considered to be a “male hormone” but it is also produced in small amounts in women and plays a role in sexual desire and enhancement of energy. Menopause is defined as one year of amenorrhea (no periods). When her menstrual periods stop, a woman cannot become pregnant. The stage of life immediately preceding menopause, in which women transition from regular menstrual periods to no menstrual periods at all, is called perimenopause. In this 3-5 year period menses may become irregular, menopausal symptoms may occur, and bone density may begin to decrease at a more rapid rate. Currently there are about 47 million postmenopausal women in the United States and this number is steadily increasing.

Menopause does not occur at a specific age, although most women go through menopause near midlife. The mean age for menopause for women in the United States is roughly 51 years, but in some cases it may occur much earlier or later. Women who smoke, have never been pregnant, or live at high altitudes may have an earlier onset of menopause than normal.

Menopause normally occurs as a result of natural aging, but it can start prematurely if the ovaries cease to function for any reason such as chemotherapy or radiation. Many women become menopausal as a result of surgical removal of the ovaries prior to normal menopause. Removal of the uterus alone does not cause menopause; the ovaries produce hormones, not the uterus.

Myths of Menopause

Some of the myths plaguing our thinking concerning menopause include:

  1. Menopause is the beginning of a downhill course in life.
  2. Menopause is a time of diminished productivity and contribution to society.
  3. Menopause always occurs at the age when the individual’s mother became menopausal.
  4. Menopause is often the end of normal sexual desire.

These misconceptions are not consistently true, and should not discourage those entering this phase of their lives.

Another common misconception is that hormone therapy can make menopausal women fertile again. The use of supplemental hormones does not restore ovarian function or fertility. Menopausal women are considered permanently infertile after they have had cessation of menses for 12 consecutive months.

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