September is National Menopause Awareness Month! Because menopause is something that happens to every woman, we figured we would take some time to talk about what happens when it comes earlier than expected. For this, we turn to WebMD, which works closely with health experts across a broad range of specialties to provide credible information and in-depth reference materials for health.
About Premature Menopause
In the U.S., the average age of onset for “natural” menopause is 51. However, because of genetics, illness, or medical procedures, some women go through menopause before the age of 40. Menopause that occurs before this age, whether natural or induced, is known as “premature” menopause.
In addition to dealing with hot flashes, mood swings, and other menopause symptoms, many women undergoing premature menopause have to cope with additional physical and emotional concerns. For example, because menopause signals the end of a woman’s fertile years, a woman who wishes to get pregnant is likely to have trouble.
What Are the Symptoms?
Symptoms of premature menopause are often the same as those experienced by women undergoing natural menopause. These may include hot flashes, irregular or missed periods, and periods that are heavier or lighter than usual. Some women may also experience vaginal dryness; bladder irritability and incontinence; emotional changes such as irritability, mood swings, and mild depression; dry skin, eyes, or mouth; sleeplessness; and a decreased sex drive.
In addition to these symptoms, women under the age of 40 experiencing any of the following conditions should be assessed by a health care provider for premature menopause: chemotherapy or radiation, autoimmune disorders, unsuccessful tries to become pregnant for more than a year, or a family history of premature menopause.
How Is It Diagnosed?
To diagnose premature menopause, health care providers perform a physical exam and draw blood to rule out other conditions, such as pregnancy and thyroid disease. They may also order a test to measure a woman’s estradiollevels. Low levels of estradiol, a form of estrogen, can indicate that the ovaries are starting to fail. When estradiol levels are below 30, it may signal that a woman is in menopause.
The most important test used to diagnose premature menopause, however, is a blood test that measures follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH causes the ovaries to produce estrogen. When the ovaries slow their production of estrogen, levels of FSH increase. When FSH levels rise above 40, it usually indicates that a woman is in menopause.
How Is It Treated?
The symptoms and health risks of premature menopause, as well as the emotional issues that may result from it, can be managed with methods similar to those used for natural menopause. Women dealing with infertility brought on by premature menopause may want to discuss their options with their doctor or with a reproductive specialist.
Can It Lead to Other Health Issues?
Like all menopausal women, women in premature menopause experience lower estrogen levels as the ovaries stop most of their production of this hormone. Low levels of estrogen can lead to changes in a woman’s overall health and may increase her risk for certain medical conditions, such asosteoporosis. Other health risks associated with the loss of estrogen include increased risk for colon and ovarian cancer, gum disease, tooth loss, and cataract formation.
However, compared with women who go through natural menopause, women undergoing premature menopause spend a greater portion of their lives without the protective benefits of their own estrogen. This puts them at an even greater risk for menopause-related health problems.