Menopause is a stage in a person’s life when their menstrual cycle stops. The average age in the U.S. is 52. During this time, the ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone—hormones that regulate the reproductive cycle and support pregnancy—marking the end of reproductive function. After going without a period for 12 consecutive months, a person is officially considered to be in menopause.
Perimenopause—the months or years leading up to menopause—and menopause may be accompanied by symptoms such as hot flashes, dizziness, headaches, decrease in libido and emotional changes. Before a person’s menstrual cycle stops completely, they may experience irregular periods in addition to the other symptoms.
Not too long ago, hormone replacement therapy was the standard treatment to alleviate menopausal symptoms. However, research has revealed health risks of hormone replacement therapy, including heart disease, stroke and breast cancer, that may well outweigh its benefits. Each person should determine with their doctor whether hormone replacement therapy is right for them.
Hormonal changes during menopause are responsible for the loss of bone mass. The bones become lighter, weaker and more prone to damage. This condition—called osteoporosis—can be a serious problem for some people. Smoking and caffeine consumption contribute to osteoporosis progression by depleting calcium, which is mainly found in bones. Following a diet that includes vitamin D, calcium, fruits and vegetables and fluoride supplements can help prevent osteoporosis. Adding regular weight-bearing activities to your exercise routine can also help improve bone and cardiovascular health, regardless of how old you are.
The purpose of menopause has intrigued scientists because the evolutionary benefit for a female to outlive her fertility isn’t clear. The popular explanation is the “grandmother hypothesis,” which states that a grandmother promotes survival of her grandchildren by helping her own children raise them. An alternative explanation, called the “mother hypothesis,” suggests that older mothers may benefit from investing resources in their existing children rather than risking their health by giving birth at advanced age.
No matter what the scientific purpose for menopause is, it’s a part of life that eventually happens to everyone who menstruates. Staying as healthy as you can during this “change of life” is an important part of the aging process.
Natalya Zinkevich, PhD, teaches anatomy and physiology courses at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She studies vascular biology with a focus on human health and disease at the Cardiovascular Center of the Medical College of Wisconsin.