What is menopause?

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Menopause is a normal life event that all women experience as they age. The menopause and the menopause transition (the period leading up to menopause) is a distinct transitional life phase with its own particular health issues.

In medical terminology, the word “menopause” refers to the last menstrual period a woman ever has. In popular language though, the term is often used to describe any of the changes a woman goes through either just before or after she stops menstruating, marking the end of her reproductive years.

The exact event of menopause (the permanent cessation of menstruation) can only be determined retrospectively after no menstrual periods have occurred for 12 consecutive months. After this point, a woman is considered to be “postmenopausal”.

The range for the age of natural menopause is approximately between 45 and 55 years old. If a women goes into menopause before the age of 40, it’s considered premature (and abnormal). Most women reach menopause by the age of 51.

What is the menopause transition?
The menopause transition (previously called the perimenopause) is an important time for many women. This is when you first start to notice changes in your body. Often the first sign of the approaching menopause is loss of the regular cycle of your periods. You may also start to have symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats.

Before ovulation stops altogether, the menstrual cycle often lengthens. This can start anything from 2-8 years before menopause. It’s the reason that older women often find it more difficult to fall pregnant.

Can menopause be prevented?
No. Menopause is a natural, normal part of ageing and therefore cannot be prevented.

You can, however, prevent some of the complications and symptoms associated with menopause by following a healthy lifestyle and talking to your doctor about the possibility of using menopause hormone therapy (MHT) and other treatments.

Note that the risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, urinary incontinence and weight gain increases during, but especially after, menopause. Check in regularly with your doctor to assess your risk.

Reviewed and updated by Dr Carol Thomas MBChB (UCT) FCOG (SA) MMed (O&G) (UCT), specialist gynaecologist in private practice, Cape Town, President of the South African Menopause Society and Director of the WomanSpace and iMobiMaMa. March 2017.

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