For most women, the term “menopause” is synonymous with maturity, wisdom, an established family and a life well-lived. Viewed as a small price to pay for the many riches middle-age can bring, menopause is simply a phase we expect to go through when a number of our grandchildren are already seated at our dinner tables. For one-percent of females between the ages of 15 and 45, however, this is sadly not the case with early or premature menopause occurring more commonly than many of us realise. 1
The symptoms of menopause are being recognised in younger women with more and more frequency, and while its onset can occur for a variety of reasons, it leaves an indelible mark on those the condition affects.
Under normal circumstances, menopause signifies the end of a woman’s fertile years, which is cause for huge consternation in those who enter menopause early and have not yet had children (or completed their families). With that said, well established fertility clinics can assist childless sufferers to conceive.
What is early menopause?
“A distinct difference exists between early and premature menopause which is directly linked to age. If it strikes before the age of 40 it is considered to be premature menopause, and if it occurs prior to 45 years of age it is termed early menopause. Either way, there is hope for women experiencing its symptoms or resultant infertility,” explains leading fertility clinic, Vitalab’s Dr Merwyn Jacobson.
“Early or premature menopause is characterised, for the most part, by symptoms identical to those experienced during natural menopause. The well-documented night sweats, hot flashes, insomnia, headaches, joint or muscle pain and mood swings are indicators that the sufferer could be going through the “change of life”, so to speak. Weight gain and a change in body shape may also be signs of menopause, along with anxiety, depression, cravings, forgetfulness and a low libido,” adds Dr Jacobson.
The leading cause of these symptoms is a dramatic reduction of estrogen levels which brings about a variety of changes to many of the body’s functions. By way of example, this sudden decrease can occur as a result of the following factors:
- Premature Ovarian Failure (POV): This condition causes the ovaries of women to stop functioning properly, which can be due to the fact that they either stop producing eggs or no longer secrete the hormones needed to ovulate.
- Surgical menopause: This refers to the purposeful decision taken to force women into menopause for specific health reasons such as endometriosis, polyps or ovarian cancer. Surgical procedures such as an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) or hysterectomy (removing the uterus, fallopian tubes and sometimes the ovaries) can cause estrogen levels to drop suddenly causing the early, or premature onset of menopause
- Cancer treatment: Chemotherapy or radiation can destroy healthy ovarian cells leading women to enter temporary, or permanent, early menopause
- Autoimmune disorders: In this case, the body sees itself as an invader and develops antibodies to fight itself including the ovaries.
- Genetics: Five percent of women echo their mother’s experience and enter menopause at the same age
- Infections: Diseases such as mumps and tuberculosis can infect ovaries thereby shaking hormonal balances, although this is very rare 2
Treatment of early menopause
“While there is no cure for menopause, early, premature or otherwise, great strides have been made in the treatment thereof. Hormone therapy (HT) is an extremely effective treatment option and may to alleviate the symptoms of early or premature menopause, and occasionally including infertility. Those concerned that they may be inflicted with the condition need simply to undergo a test that measures estradiol levels, or alternatively follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels, as well as the measurement of the ovarian reserve (AMH)” says Dr Jacobson.
Early or premature menopause may also brings along with it various health risks such as osteoporosis, colon and ovarian cancer, periodontal (gum) disease, tooth loss, as well as the development of cataracts. It is for this reason that women who are experiencing the aforementioned symptoms would be well advised to undergo tests sooner rather than later. 3
“The fact remains that a diagnosis of the condition does not carry dire consequences and there is much that can be done to alleviate its symptoms and overcome fertility challenges,” concludes Dr Jacobson.
When menopause strikes early help is close at hand. And with the right support, women can continue to lead a good quality of life and realise their dream of starting a family. For sufferers of early or premature menopause, the term “change of life” simply doesn’t have to apply.