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What is Menopause?

An Overview of Menopause

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Updated January 22, 2008

What is Menopause?

Menopause is the point at which a woman stops menstruating.
That’s the short answer. But what most people – including women going through menopause – mean when they use the term “menopause” is really perimenopause. Perimenopause is the time from just before menopause until the diagnosis is made -- when you've been 12 months without a period. This period of perimenopause and menopause is when women go through a number of changes, sometimes with annoying or troubling symptoms.

What Causes Menopause?

Menopause and perimenopause happen because as you get older your ovaries begin to shut down. Eventually your ovaries stop producing estrogen and other hormones. Your body has depended on these hormones for years (since puberty!), so when the amount of hormones decreases, your body reacts in ways that really get your attention. Like puberty – that other time in your life when your hormones shift rapidly – menopause can be a time of emotional reactions and body changes.

When Will Menopause Occur?

It’s hard to say exactly when menopause will occur. The average age of menopause in American women is 51, but you can start having symptoms as early as your thirties and may continue to have symptoms into your sixties. The symptoms and timing of menopause are very individual, and your menopause will probably not look exactly like anyone else’s.

It’s common for women to notice changes in their menstrual cycle in their mid- to late forties. This is often the first sign that menopause is on the way. For some women their cycle becomes longer, with more and more time between periods. Other women notice shorter cycles, and their periods come more often than they used to. And for still other women, periods become irregular, with some cycles being longer and some being shorter.

The tendency to go through menopause at a particular age is often inherited, so one clue to when you might go through menopause is to know when your mother or sisters experienced it. There are also factors that can cause your ovaries to shut down early.

Types of Menopause

There are several types of menopause, and each depends on the cause and/or timing of the end of menstruation.
  • Natural Menopause
    Natural menopause occurs when your ovaries slowly stop functioning and you stop menstruating as a result. For most women this happens between the ages of 45 and 55. As your ovaries stop producing hormones like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, your body responds and adapts. When you experience troubling symptoms as you adapt, you and your health care provider will want to discuss whether and how to treat those symptoms.

  • Induced Menopause
    Sometimes menopause does not come on its own, but is brought on by surgery or medication that affects your ovaries. When menopause is caused by a deliberate action , it is called induced menopause.

    A hysterectomy
    or other surgery that removes or damages the ovaries will cause an abrupt menopause. Usually you can anticipate this type of menopause and plan ahead for treating the sudden symptoms that can result. A hysterectomy removing only the uterus may not damage the ovaries, and therefore will not cause menopause. But if the ovaries are also removed, this is "surgical menopause."

    Chemotherapy or radiation
    as a cancer treatment will make your ovaries shut down, and that, too, can cause at least a temporary menopause.

  • Premature or Early Menopause
    Premature menopause occurs when you stop menstruating before the age of 40. Early menopause is one that occurs before the age of 45. Besides surgery, there are many reasons a woman might go through menopause early. Some of the causes of early menopause include:
    • Smoking
    • Heavy drinking
    • Endocrine disorders
    • Chemotherapy
    • Chromosome defects
    • Autoimmune disease
    • Thyroid disease

    If any of these apply to you, you may go through menopause sooner than other women.

Menopause is a natural process and not a disease. It’s true that it may cause symptoms that bother or distress you, but most of these are temporary and treatable. Women live longer now than ever before, and managing this rite of passage can open the door to a healthy, satisfying and fulfilling chapter in your life.

Sources:

National Institute on Aging, Menopause: One Woman's Story, Every Woman's Story, National Institutes of Health,NIH Publication No. 01-3886 Feb. 2001. 10 Oct. 2007.

North American Menopause Society, (NAMS), Menopause Guidebook: Helping Women Make Informed Healthcare Decisions Around Menopause and Beyond, 6th Edition , North American Menopause Society, 2006. 10 Oct. 2007.

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