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While menopause is something that every woman will inevitably go through (you can blame that on your ovaries), symptoms and duration of symptoms 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.
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Menopause usually starts between the ages of 45 and 55, once your period stops altogether. It marks the end of a woman's menstrual cycle and the end of her fertility. There are three stages of menopause, all of which are characterised by different symptoms and experiences.
Perimenopause usually happens three to five years before menopause when oestrogen and other hormone levels drop. You may experience irregular periods and certain menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes and night sweats, but fertility won't have stopped yet.
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.
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.
The duration of each stage depends on the person and can be affected by factors such as genes and ethnicity.
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. Premature menopause occurs before the age of 40. Some women in the perimenopause stage may only experience symptoms for a few months.
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 gradually and naturally as they would have during 'normal' menopause. This instant shutdown also leads to a loss of testosterone, which can lower your sex drive and cause erratic moods.
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 the 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.
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. It 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.
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.
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.
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