Early and Premature Menopause

When we hear the word menopause, we usually think of older women above the age of 60. Very rarely do we ever think of ourselves. However, menopause is not a stage necessarily relegated to elderly women. Early or premature menopause is more common than most women realize – it affects about 1% of women between the ages of 15 and 45. Early or premature menopause can occur for a variety of reasons, but in the end it leaves an imprint on the lives of all of the women it affects.

What are Early and Premature Menopause? Early onset menopause is often confused with premature menopause, but actually the two are different things. These terms hinge on the age of the woman involved; if menopause occurs before the age of 45, it is considered early menopause; if menopause occurs before the age of 40 it is considered premature menopause.

Because doctors are finally beginning to recognize the symptoms of menopause in younger women, more and more women are being diagnosed with early or premature menopause. As a result, women who are experiencing infertility or are dealing with menopause symptoms at a young age no longer have to wonder why.

What Causes Early and Premature Menopause
More often than not, doctors are unable to determine a cause for menopause in younger women. This can be very frustrating for women as it makes it difficult to accept and deal with this new stage of life. Sometimes though, there are very obvious causes of premature or early menopause.

Premature Ovarian Failure (POV): Premature ovarian failure is another name for naturally-occurring premature menopause. Women with POV have ovaries that aren’t functioning properly. Either they stop producing eggs or no longer produce the hormones needed to ovulate. POV can occur for a variety of reasons. Autoimmune disorders are responsible for more than 65% of POV cases. With these disorders, the body sees itself as an invader and develops antibodies to its own products, including ovum and menses. Genetic factors may also be involved in POV. Five per cent of women seem to follow in their mothers’ footsteps, entering into menopause early. Some women are born with irregularities in their X chromosomes, interfering with egg production before menopause should begin. Other women are just born with very few eggs, causing menopause to occur years before it should.

Surgical Menopause
Surgical menopause involves the conscious decision of forcing women into menopause for specific health reasons. Women who suffer from endometriosis, polyps, or ovarian cancer may have to undergo an oopherectomy (removal of the ovaries) or a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and sometimes ovaries). These surgeries dramatically cut off ovarian function causing estrogen levels to drop suddenly and forcing the woman into menopause.

Menopause Caused by Cancer Treatment
Menopause can be caused by chemotherapy or radiation cancer treatments. Chemotherapy and radiation kill cancer cells but, unfortunately, they also kills healthy cells. Hair cells, digestive cells, and ovarian cells are particularly at risk. Some women who have undergone cancer treatment temporarily enter menopause, while others permanently enter menopause.

Infection is also linked with premature menopause. Infections such as the mumps and tuberculosis can infect the ovaries, affecting your hormonal balance. This is extremely rare, however.

Early Menopause Symptoms
Premature menopause symptoms are essentially the same as those of natural menopause. Women commonly suffer from night sweats, hot flashes, insomnia, headaches, and joint or muscle pain. Body shape changes are also common, causing you to put on weight around the abdomen. Additionally, water retention and menopause commonly go together.

Menopausal women can experience emotional ups and downs, including anxiety, depression, cravings, and forgetfulness. All of these symptoms are triggered by the fluctuation of hormones in the body during menopause. In particular, estrogen levels reduce dramatically during the onset of menopause, causing a variety of changes in the body’s functions.

Early and premature menopause tends to be associated with more severe symptoms than menopause occurring after the age of 45. Because early menopause is often due to illness, surgery, or genetic issues, there is a rapid decline in the amount of estrogen (known as “estrogen crash”) in your body. This causes you to enter menopause more quickly than other women. Estrogen crash can cause extreme hot flashes, fatigue, mood swings, and depression in some women. In a survey of early menopausal women, 100% of women who experienced surgical menopause experienced a number of menopause symptoms in quick succession. 90% of these women complained that their symptoms were severe and lasted more than 8 years.

Treatment Options
Unfortunately, there are no menopause cures. Menopause treatment has progressed by leaps and bounds over the years, though. It is suggested that most women who have undergone early or premature menopause seek out hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Menopause symptoms will be very sudden and severe, especially after surgery, and can be lessoned by taking appropriate doses of estrogen. If oral medication is too difficult to take directly after surgery, estrogen patches that release hormones through the skin can be used to help lessen symptoms.

A good support network is also recommended to help you through the difficult times. You may be unprepared for such an immediate entry into menopause and friends, family, and other menopausal women can really help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Living life after menopause isn’t so bad in fact, it can be a very rewarding time when you have the right support.

For more information about the age of menopause, check out our menopause forum.

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