The average age for a woman to go through the menopause naturally is 52, although symptoms such as periods stopping may often start between 45 and 55.
Because of genetics, illness or medical procedures, some women go through menopause before the age of 45. Menopause that occurs before this age, whether natural or induced, is known as early menopause, premature menopause or premature ovarian failure (POF).
Estimates say 1% of women go through the menopause under 40 and 0.1% go through it before they are 30.
In addition to dealing with hot flushes, mood swings, and other symptoms that accompany menopause, 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 problems.
What are the symptoms of early menopause?
Symptoms of premature menopause are often the same as those experienced by women undergoing natural menopause and may include:
- Irregular or missed periods
- Periods that are heavier or lighter than usual
- Hot flushes (a sudden feeling of warmth that spreads over the upper body)
These symptoms are a sign that the ovaries are producing less oestrogen.
Along with the above symptoms, some women may experience:
- Vaginal dryness (the vagina may also become thinner and less flexible)
- Bladder irritability and worsening of loss of bladder control (incontinence)
- Emotional changes (irritability, mood swings, mild depression)
- Dry skin, eyes, or mouth
- Decreased sex drive
In addition to the symptoms listed above, if you are under the age of 40 and experience any of the following conditions, you should seek medical advice to determine whether you are undergoing early menopause:
- You have undergone chemotherapy or radiotherapy
- You or a family member has an autoimmune disorder such as hypothyroidism, Graves' disease or lupus
- You have unsuccessfully tried to become pregnant for more than a year
- Your mother or sister experienced premature menopause
How is early menopause diagnosed?
To diagnose early menopause, your doctor may perform a physical examination and request blood tests to rule out other conditions, such as pregnancy and thyroid disease. He or she may also order a test to measure your oestradiol hormone levels. Low levels of oestradiol, a form of oestrogen, can indicate that your ovaries are starting to fail or that you are in the menopause.
However, the most important test used to diagnose premature menopause is a blood test that measures follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH causes your ovaries to produce oestrogen. When your ovaries slow down their production of oestrogen, your levels of FSH increase. High levels of FSH usually indicate that you are in menopause.
Are there other health issues that affect women in early menopause?
Like all menopausal women, women in premature menopause experience lowered oestrogen levels as the ovaries stop most of their production of this hormone. Low levels of oestrogen can lead to changes in a woman's overall health and may increase her risk of certain medical conditions, such as osteoporosis. Other health risks associated with the loss of oestrogen include increased risk of colon and ovarian cancer, periodontal (gum) disease, tooth loss, and cataract formation.
However, compared with women who go through natural menopause, women undergoing early menopause spend a greater portion of their lives without the protective benefits of their own oestrogen. This puts them at an even greater risk of menopause-related health problems.