- Menopause is a transition into a woman’s next stage of life and the end of your menstruation and reproductive years
- Some women may experience menopause prematurely or later than the average 45 – 55 age range
- You may experience a lot of different symptoms while living with menopause, including hot flashes or brain fog
Menopause is a natural part of ageing for women and can have broad impacts on the lives of people who experience it.
The average age of onset for menopause is 51, however, you can experience menopause anywhere between 45 to 55 – and some women may experience menopause before or after this age range.
Symptoms of menopause typically last for around four years or more.
Clinical Neuropsychologist and Deputy Director of HER (Health, Education and Research) Centre Australia at Monash University, Associate Professor Caroline Gurvich, says that menopause can be a confusing time for women, because you may not realise what is going on.
However, she says it is important to identify when menopause, or perimenopause, has begun so you can begin getting treatment or managing the symptoms you experience – as many people don’t link the symptoms they are experiencing to menopause.
What is menopause?
Going through menopause is the beginning of change into the next period of your life, as it signifies the end of your menstruation and reproductive years.
As you age, your body starts to slow down. In the case of your ovaries, they begin producing less of the hormones that make your reproductive system work, such as estrogen and progesterone.
Over the menopause transition, your body will begin having erratic menstruation periods, before stopping altogether.
Associate Professor Gurvich says that the symptoms of menopause can be very broad and that it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way – including during perimenopause.
Your body will take a period of adjustment to get used to all the changes and new hormone levels.
Perimenopause in women
A large portion of women and people with intact ovaries will go through perimenopause, which translates to “around menopause”.
This isn’t considered menopause, but rather a transition into the new menopause period of your life. You will find that your periods won’t stop altogether, but will become more erratic.
This stage of the menopausal transition can last for a number of years before you move into menopause.
“[It can be] four to ten years that people experience the fluctuation in their hormones, and their bodies adjusting to the changing hormone levels,” explained Associate Professor Gurvich.
How long your perimenopause lasts can depend on a number of things, including whether you smoke or your ethnicity.
You have reached official menopause when you have gone without a menstrual period for a whole year.
If you do experience menopause later, in your early 60s, studies have found that it can lower the risk of many chronic conditions women can experience.
This includes heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and osteoporosis – it is believed that longer exposure to estrogen better protects your heart and bones from ageing.
The same study found that women live for longer if they have longevity in their reproductive years.
Associate Professor Gurvich says that while it is still not conclusively known whether late-onset menopause has good or bad side effects, older women should experience the same symptoms they would experience within the 45 to 55 age range.
Symptoms of menopause
Symptoms of menopause, and perimenopause, can differ from person to person, and no menopause transition is the same for everybody that experiences it.
You may experience:
- Vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flashes (also known as hot flushes)
- Night sweats
- Changes in sleep patterns or problems falling asleep
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Mental health symptoms, like depression and anxiety
- Mood changes, like irritability or other mood swings
- Cognitive symptoms, like brain fog, concentration difficulties or word retrieval issues
These symptoms can occur as your body adapts to rising or falling estrogen levels in your body during this period of your life.
Associate Professor Gurvich says that many women start worrying they may be experiencing dementia due to the brain fog symptoms, not realising it is actually the beginning of menopause.
Additionally, menopause can have an impact on your enjoyment of home life and the workplace.
She explains, “Some studies in the United Kingdom have looked at the impact of menopause on work enjoyment, work productivity, and those concentration and memory changes that so many women experience can have an adverse impact.
“A lot of women don’t know about it, so they get really confused and think, ‘Oh my god, I am developing Alzheimer’s disease because I am forgetting, having trouble concentrating and having trouble multitasking, what’s going on’.
“I think the lack of awareness is a huge factor, and it’s anxiety-provoking, and anxiety itself can make it difficult to think clearly.”
More conversation around cognitive and mental health symptoms during menopause is vital because these conversations are often neglected, says Associate Professor Gurvich.
Living with menopause
Associate Professor Gurvich says once you have identified you are experiencing menopause, you should approach your doctor or a health professional to get advice for your personal situation.
Depending on your eligibility, you may be able to take menopausal hormone therapy, which can assist in relieving some of the symptoms associated with menopause or prevent osteoporosis.
Otherwise, you may need to manage the day-to-day symptoms of menopause. For instance, if you are experiencing brain fog, you should reduce the distractions around you and do one task at a time.
“There is no change in cognition at an objective level, but in day-to-day life, people do experience these lapses in day-to-day concentration and word retrieval,” explains Associate Professor Gurvich.
“It is trying to minimise those distractions so you can focus on one task at a time. Really be conscious of allocating your attention to that task rather than having lots of demands on your attention.”
Depending on the symptoms you experience, your doctor may recommend a range of medications or treatments to help.
The Royal Women’s Hospital recommends:
- Wearing breathable clothing to bed or having separate sheets from your partner if you begin getting night sweats
- Getting counselling or psychological therapy when you need it
- Avoid things that trigger your hot flushes, like hot drinks, spicy food, or stressful situations
- Dressing in layers so you can remove or put on clothing when you need to
Managing your life with menopause
There are a number of tips that Associate Professor Gurvich recommends following to manage your life with menopause:
- Follow healthy lifestyle guidelines, like regular exercise, having good sleep, and eating well. Associate Professor Gurvich recommends following a Mediterranean diet, as it can be beneficial during menopause
- Keep socially connected, as loneliness has been shown to not be beneficial for older women experiencing menopause
- Engage in intellectual activities to keep your brain stimulated
- Reduce your stress or drivers of stress in your life
- Be kind to yourself, these menopausal symptoms are common for all women
Associate Professor Gurvich says when it comes to brain fog during the menopause transition, it happens to two-thirds of women.
This brain fog could be experiencing momentary forgetfulness, difficulty multitasking, or difficulty retrieving words.
She says it is important for women to be validated and know that these menopause experiences, like brain fog, happen to most people that go through menopause.
You can learn more about living well in your later years in our article, ‘Keeping healthy physically in your old age‘.
How did you manage your menopause? Tell us in the comments below.