In the UK, the average age of onset for a “natural” menopause is 51. However, because of genetics, illness, or medical procedures, some women go through the menopause before the age of 40. If the menopause occurs before this age, whether natural or induced, it is known as a “premature” menopause.
In addition to dealing with hot flushes, mood swings, and other symptoms that accompany the menopause, many women undergoing a premature menopause have to cope with additional physical and emotional concerns. For example, since the 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 a premature menopause?
Symptoms of a premature menopause are often the same as those experienced by women undergoing a 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
As well as the above symptoms, some women may experience:
In addition to the symptoms listed above, if you are under the age of 40 and experience any of the following conditions, you should see your doctor to determine whether you are undergoing a premature 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 a sister experienced a premature menopause
How is a premature menopause diagnosed?
First, your doctor will be most likely to perform a physical examination and take a blood sample to rule out other conditions, such as pregnancy and thyroid disease. The doctor may also arrange a test to measure your oestradiol levels. Low levels of oestradiol, a form of oestrogen, can indicate that your ovaries are starting to fail. When oestradiol levels are below a certain level, it may indicate 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 stimulates your ovaries to produce oestrogen. When your ovaries slow down their production of oestrogen, your body releases more FSH in an attempt to drive the ovaries harder, and your levels of FSH increase. When your FSH levels rise above a certain level it usually indicates that you are in the menopause.