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If you've just started experiencing menopause symptoms, you're probably thinking 'how long do I have to put up with this for?' and wondering if some of the nasty side effects (no thanks, night sweats) last longer than others. While menopause is often troublesome, the symptoms and duration can vary from person to person. But how long does menopause typically last and what are the stages? We answer some of the most important questions.
Menopause is when a woman stops having periods, marking the end of her menstrual cycle and natural fertility. It usually starts between the ages of 46 and 56, and 51 is the average age that women reach menopause in the UK.
However, menopause and its effects don't just happen overnight on the date of your last period. It's a gradual process that can happen over years, starting with the perimenopause, the first stage of menopause. Changes to a woman's reproductive cycle are complex, and this often means that periods don't just stop without warning (although they do for some), and many women experience irregular periods and changes to their cycle when going through perimenopause.
Some women (around 1 in 100) will experience premature menopause, which occurs when menopause happens before the age of 40, usually due to genetic factors or illness. If you're concerned you may be going through premature menopause, your doctor will be able to advise you.
While, in medical terms, the menopause does not technically occur until the last period, there are three stages of menopause, all of which are characterised by different symptoms and experiences. Here's a brief overview of what you need to know about each stage.
"I am in the stages of perimenopause. My emotions are all over the place, from weeping to being agitated to sleeping a lot."
Perimenopause, sometimes called the menopause transition, is when the changes begin to happen to a woman's body that will eventually lead to her going through the menopause. It usually happens three to five years before menopause when oestrogen and other hormone levels drop.
The main difference between perimenopause and menopause is that your periods haven't stopped and you may still be fertile. A common sign of perimenopause is irregular periods, especially if you usually have regular periods, as the functioning of the ovaries is changing. Other symptoms of perimenopause are quite similar to the menopause, and typically include:
Visit our guide to perimenopause symptoms and treatment for more information on this stage of menopause.
"One thing that I found reassuring is the number of prominent women who seem to come into their prime in their 50s when they must be going through menopause."
Menopause itself begins when your body no longer produces oestrogen and progesterone. While not having a period is the tell-tale sign that menopause has started (in addition to menopausal symptoms), hitting menopause isn't always obvious as you won't know you've had your final period until a full year has passed.
"I'm feeling better now after about eight years of symptoms."
Postmenopause occurs 12 months after your last period, but, unlike perimenopause and menopause, it isn't marked by a new set of physical symptoms. There is, however, an increased risk when it comes to developing health conditions, such as osteoporosis and heart disease, due to permanently lowered hormone levels.
Looking after yourself is always advisable, but it's particularly important after menopause due to the increased risk of these illnesses. Make sure you exercise regularly, adjust your diet if necessary, and check you're getting all the vitamins you need.
The duration of each stage depends on the person and can be affected by factors such as genes and family history.
Perimenopause lasts for around four years on average, however some women do experience what is known as early menopause, which is characterised by the onset of menopausal symptoms before the age of 45. This is different to premature menopause, which occurs before the age of 40.
Some women in the perimenopause stage may only experience symptoms for a few months, whereas others have reported the perimenopause lasting for 10 years.
Once you have gone through menopause, the postmenopause stage will last for the rest of your life, but you may still experience menopausal symptoms following the transition.
During postmenopause, symptoms gradually decrease and may last for about seven years after a woman's last period. Hormone levels won't fluctuate as much as in the first two stages, so many women find some relief. One in 10 will, unfortunately, experience symptoms in the postmenopause stage for up to 12 years.
While menopause is a natural part of the ageing process, it can be brought on prematurely by medical procedures, such a surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. A radical hysterectomy in particular, i.e. the removal of the uterus and the ovaries, can induce instant menopause, also known as surgical menopause.
Menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes, insomnia, vaginal dryness and mood swings, can follow a hysterectomy, but are usually more severe because the ovaries haven't been able to shut down as gradually and naturally as they would have during 'normal' menopause.
If, however, your ovaries are not removed during the hysterectomy, instant menopause won't occur, but there is a possibility that you will experience menopause within five years.
The duration of menopausal symptoms after a hysterectomy depends on a number of different factors, including whether you're undergoing Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).
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The intensity and duration of menopause symptoms throughout all three stages of menopause differs from woman to woman, but there are generally a few patterns, especially when it comes to those that are most common.
"Things that make hot flushes worse for me are: hot rooms, alcohol, chocolate, eating very sweet things late at night and duvets. I now sleep under microfibre blankets."
These are characterised by a sudden feeling of heat all over the body. They can be mild or more severe, with some women experiencing them 15 to 20 times a day. Hot flushes last, on average, for around seven years, but this median can depend on whether hot flushes were experienced during perimenopause or whether the individual only started experiencing them during postmenopause.
"Until my GP mentioned it, it was something I had never heard of. I put up with months of discomfort and irritation and UTI symptoms before getting treatment. I now use a vaginal moisturiser daily and have not been troubled with UTIs or irritation for years."
Symptoms of vaginal atrophy include dryness, bleeding or pain during sex, itchiness, soreness and UTIs. How long vaginal atrophy lasts depends entirely on whether it's treated, but it can also lead to a loss of libido, another common symptom of the hormonal changes caused by menopause. Vaginal atrophy can be treated with oestrogen creams, tablets or rings.
"I felt pretty well apart from bouts of tiredness. Listening to relaxation CDs helped a lot."
Insomnia can be one of the most debilitating symptoms of menopause as it can lead to fatigue, anxiety and even depression. Sleep problems can be caused by night sweats or the shifting in sleep pattern that occurs during perimenopause. While you might not recognise difficulty in sleeping as insomnia at first, it is important to seek diagnosis from your GP. Treatment methods can include a change in diet or sleep routine or even an alteration of environmental factors, such as a quiet and dark bedroom.
"I am 55 and my hair is getting thinner and thinner on top. I don't think people get the emotional impact hair loss can have on a woman."
For some women, menopause may lead to hair loss or thin hair. While this can be distressing, there are a number of products for thinning hair that can promote regrowth, which means that it does not have to be permanent.
"I was on the phone earlier and it does make it awkward to hold a conversation when the little grey cells are having a dance instead of doing their job."
As much as 60% of women experience 'brain fog' or forgetfulness as a result of menopause or even other menopausal symptoms themselves, such as lack of sleep. It usually occurs during perimenopause when hormones start to change and, for some, it can subside relatively quickly. For others, however, long-term memory issues may require specific treatment, like HRT, or more general lifestyle changes.
"When I finally went to my gynaecologist she was brilliant. Not only did she put me on low-level oestrogen patches, but she took a blood test and found my testosterone levels were really low, resulting in low libido. She gave me a testosterone patch and I have never looked back. I have my life (and sex life) back."
As with many unwanted side effects of menopause, you can blame your hormones for this one. As women age their testosterone levels drop, which can result in a reduced sex drive. Other factors of the menopause, particularly vaginal atrophy and low moods, can also influence your libido. If you're worried, talk to your GP or gynaecologist about treatments that can help.
"I had quite a few night sweats and hot flushes, but the migraines are just horrendous."
We all know how debilitating a headache can be and, unfortunately, they are a common symptom of menopause. The fluctuating hormone levels that come with the menopause can cause headaches, and other symptoms such as stress and anxiety can also have an impact. As with anything you're concerned about, speak to a GP, as they will be able to identify the type of headache you are experiencing and hopefully advise on effective pain relief.
"Lately I have been so irritable and a mood swing can happen out of nowhere. I can be so content and then something happens and I find I am getting into exhausting rows with my partner."
While mood swings might be fairly mild for some women and dissipate over time, they could be life-changing and last much longer for others. The key is to recognise the signs, especially if you think you might be suffering from anxiety or depression, and approach your GP for diagnosis and treatment.
Disclaimer: The information on our health pages is only intended as an informal guide and should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice. Gransnet would urge you to consult your GP before you begin any diet if you're concerned about your weight, have existing health conditions and/or are taking medication.