At some point, all women will experience the transition known as menopause. This transition typically occurs around the age of 50, although it’s normal for some women to experience it earlier or later. What’s less normal, however, is for women to experience menopause a decade (or more!) early.
Women who go into menopause before or between the ages of 40 and 45 are said to experience something called early or premature menopause. This is not the same thing as perimenopause, which signals the start of the menopausal transition, often during a woman’s 40s. Sadly, early menopause is not just frustrating to manage—it can carry severe health risks.
What does ‘early menopause’ mean?
There are actually two terms to describe menopause that occurs prior to the average age: early menopause and premature menopause. “Early menopause” is when a woman’s ovaries stop producing hormones before they turn 45. “Premature menopause” is when menopause occurs before the woman turns 40.
Early or premature menopause might be brought on by a number of factors, including smoking, medical treatments and medication. Some health conditions can cause it, as well, such as autoimmune diseases, HIV/AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome. In a small percentage of women, early menopause happens naturally.
Early or premature menopause looks and feels quite the same as “normal” menopause does. You may discover you’re entering early menopause when your period becomes irregular and you begin experiencing the many side-effects of the transition like hot flashes, insomnia and mood swings.
Unfortunately, women going through early menopause may experience more severe symptoms, comparatively. A blood test at your doctor can confirm fluctuations in your hormone levels to determine if you’re truly experiencing early menopause instead of another health problem.
Early menopause is not merely inconvenient
Early or premature menopause can be stressful and frustrating for women. It can interrupt family planning, since menopausal women can no longer get pregnant. It can bring about menopause symptoms much sooner than expected, causing stress. And, it can make women feel like something is abnormal about their bodies.
However, these conditions are not merely inconvenient or stressful. Early menopause can actually put women at great risk for health problems sooner in life. While these problems commonly afflict menopausal women of any age, experiencing an increased risk 10 to 15 years earlier can have harmful impacts on your long-term health.
These problems are largely linked to the sudden decrease in estrogen within the body. Estrogen plays a major role in the protection and health of various bodily systems. With estrogen levels dropping dramatically earlier in life, the body may start to degrade sooner, accelerating the aging process.
Here are a few of the major risks.
- Heart disease: Estrogen is vital for the flexibility of blood vessels, helping them maintain strength and adequate blood flow. When estrogen levels drop, the blood vessels can become more rigid and constricted, restricting blood flow. This can increase your risk for heart attacks and strokes. Developing rigid blood vessels and other cardiovascular problems earlier in life makes the risks of heart disease much more dangerous.
- Osteoporosis: The bones throughout your body rely on estrogen to help process calcium required to maintain and build bone density. Menopausal women often experience drops in bone density because the body has a harder time absorbing the necessary calcium. This increases women’s risk of bone fractures and breaks and can cause painful mobility. Early or premature menopause can set this process in motion sooner. Not only can this create bone problems earlier, but it can also significantly alter your lifestyle and athletic interests.
- Depression: Depression and anxiety are common as women near menopause, and the same is true for women going through early menopause. Unfortunately, the stress of premature life changes can exacerbate symptoms of these mood disorders, making it more difficult to cope and stay healthy.
Can you treat early menopause?
Early and premature menopause do not always have to be treated. However, some forms of treatment can help women stave off the harmful effects early menopause can have on the body. It will ultimately be up to you and your doctor to determine what the right path forward is for your health.
Women going through early menopause are typically not treated and can work through their transition normally. Some at-home treatments like supplements, diet and lifestyle changes may help you manage symptoms more easily.
Premature menopause is more likely to be treated using hormone therapy, depending on your age. Hormone replacement therapy can help provide the protective benefits of estrogen and progesterone until you reach the age when you’d normally experience menopause.
No matter what causes early menopause or what treatment method is chosen to manage it, a healthy lifestyle, self-care and robust support system can be beneficial in navigating this difficult transition and the changes, stressors and risks that accompany it.