The menopause is when a woman's ovaries stop producing an egg every month. She no longer has monthly periods and is unlikely to become pregnant. Also known as ‘change of life’, it is the end of menstruation.
Why is this important?
Some women have few symptoms of the menopause, but for others the changes in hormone levels during the menopause can cause several physical symptoms (for example, hot flushes, vaginal dryness) or emotional symptoms (for example, mood changes). Simple lifestyle changes can relieve most symptoms.
Who does it affect?
In the UK, the average age for a woman to reach the menopause is 50, although some women experience the menopause in their 30s or 40s. If you experience the menopause before the age of 40, it's known as a ‘premature’ or ‘early’ menopause. The age of menopause can be hereditary.
What’s happening to my body?
The menopause is caused by a change in the balance of the body's sex hormones. In the lead-up to the menopause, oestrogen levels decrease, causing the ovaries to stop producing an egg each month (ovulation). This means you are much less likely to become pregnant.
What does this mean for me?
Menstruation (monthly periods) can sometimes stop suddenly when you reach the menopause. However, it's more likely that your periods will become less frequent, with longer intervals between each one, before they stop altogether.
As levels of oestrogen reduce, most women experience hot flushes and night sweats. Some women experience mood swings or other symptoms related to hormonal change such as vaginal dryness. Symptoms can last from two to five years.
When does it happen?
Most women will be diagnosed with the menopause when they are over 50 and have not had a period for 12 months or more.
Menopause is diagnosed in women under 50 after 24 months without a period.
Until diagnosis, you should continue to use contraception.
You should talk to your GP if you have menopausal symptoms that are troubling you, whether they are physical or emotional.
You can improve your symptoms by making simple dietary and lifestyle changes. Eating a healthy, balanced diet and taking plenty of regular exercise is important.
A healthy diet that includes all the food groups will help keep your bones strong and healthy. Combining aerobic activities, such as walking, with strength and flexibility exercises will also help you maintain bone strength and muscle mass, which decreases faster in post-menopausal women than in men.
Medical treatment may be recommended if you have more severe menopausal symptoms that interfere with your day-to-day life.
- hormone replacement therapy (HRT) helps relieve menopausal symptoms by replacing oestrogen. It's available in many forms including tablets, cream or gel, a skin patch or an implant
- vaginal lubricants and local oestrogen creams can be used to treat vaginal dryness
- antidepressants are sometimes prescribed for treating hot flushes.