What is the menopause?
The menopause is the process that women go through when their menstrual cycle stops.
Once this happens, they can no longer naturally fall pregnant. The menopausal process includes the changes and symptoms experienced before (perimenopause) and after periods stop altogether (post menopause). The length of time this full process takes will vary depending on the individual.
What causes the menopause?
Women (assigned female at birth) are born with up to 3 million eggs, which are stored in the ovaries. Over time, eggs naturally die off through a process called ‘atresia’. The menstrual cycle usually starts between the ages of 10-15, and by the time this happens, the ovaries tend to have around 400,000 eggs. There are of course exceptions, and some do not have regular menstruation cycles for several reasons.
During the menstrual cycle, eggs are released monthly – this is called ovulation. The ovaries produce sex hormones, including oestrogen and progesterone. These are the key hormones controlling the release of eggs and the period, which is when menstruation occurs. Over time the ovaries gradually produce less oestrogen, and the frequency and intensity of periods tend to change. For some they may increase, whilst for others they’ll decrease – it’s not the same for everyone. This is important to stress because heavier periods, too, can be a sign that hormones are out of kilter and the menopause is starting. Eventually, the ovaries stop releasing eggs completely and periods will stop, and the menstruation cycle is over.
The menopause can also be brought on by other causes, such as surgery to remove the ovaries (an oophorectomy), chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or some underlying health conditions like Down’s Syndrome or Addison’s Disease.
When does the menopause happen?
Generally, if the menopause occurs naturally, it tends to happen between the ages of 45 and 55. The average age that a person's periods may stop is 51.
If someone's periods stop before the age of 40, it is classed as premature menopause. Around 1% of those who have periods will experience this, and there isn’t always a clear cause. If your periods have become infrequent or have completely stopped before this age, it is vitally important that you speak to your GP. Our Society Matron, Cheryl Lythgoe, explains why.
“The loss of oestrogen during very early menopause can impact a person in several ways. It can raise their risk of developing cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s, and dementia. This is because oestrogen does a multitude of things for our bodies, not just controlling the reproductive system itself. That’s why anybody experiencing early menopause should be offered Hormone Replacement Therapy to replace the oestrogen. A GP will be able to advise on the appropriate type for you, or suitable alternatives.”
What are common menopause symptoms?
The majority of people will experience at least some symptoms during the menopause. However the severity, and the length of time they last, will vary from person to person.
Some of the most typical symptoms are:
Vaginal dryness (and often discomfort during sex).
Concentration and memory problems (often referred to as ‘brain fog’).
Hot flushes and night sweats (these can happen during both day and night).
Low mood, mood swings, depression or anxiety.
Because many symptoms often occur before the menstruation cycle stops, the cause is not always obvious. Taking a blood test is one way to measure your hormone levels to see if your oestrogen levels are becoming lower, however this type of test isn't currently recommended. It's always worth speaking to your GP if you feel like your body or mood is suddenly changing.
Our blog ‘Key stages of the menopause’ explains more about what happens when a person goes through the menopause, and when a wide range of symptoms typically occur.
There are many treatments for the menopause, ranging from professional healthcare and medication, to home remedies and lifestyle changes. Read our blog ‘managing the symptoms of the menopause’ to find out more.
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Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly in March 2023. Next review date: March 2024.