In the U.S., a woman enters menopause at age 51, on average. This means that some women will go through it sooner and some later. The age range is rather wide — 40 to 58, according to the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). But does it really matter if you enter menopause late or early?
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"There are data that support that a longer reproductive lifespan is associated with better outcomes, including lower dementia and heart disease risk," says Stephanie Faubion, MD, medical director of NAMS and director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Women's Health in Rochester, Minn. That said, some studies suggest that late menopause may increase breast cancer risk. Here's what you need to know.
"There is no blood test required to say you are in menopause," explains Dr. Faubion. "Menopause means you have not gotten your period for a full year." The time leading up to menopause — perimenopause — marks the gradual transition between the reproductive years and menopause. During this time, menstrual periods may be heavier, lighter or few and far between, she says.
Levels of the female sex hormone estrogen and other hormones decline dramatically with menopause, according to NAMS. The older you are when you enter menopause, the longer you are exposed to estrogen. Menopausal symptoms related to dwindling estrogen include dry skin, thinning hair, hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, memory problems, loss of interest in sex, weight gain, vaginal dryness and brittle bones, among others, NAMS notes.
Menopause and Your Heart
Heart disease is the top killer of women in the U.S., the American Heart Association points out. And when your estrogen levels decline, your risk of heart disease goes up, Dr. Faubion adds.
Taking steps to protect your heart health before and during menopause is the best way to mitigate this risk, according to Dr. Faubion. Obesity, smoking, lack of physical activity and high blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar or glucose levels are known to increase your chances of developing heart disease. "Don't smoke, maintain a normal weight, get regular exercise and make sure that your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels are where they should be," Dr. Faubion says.
Women who experience early or premature menopause show some significant declines in cognitive function when compared with women who enter menopause after age 50, researchers reported in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in May 2014. This suggests that late menopause may protect the brain. The good news is that many of the same things that protect your heart, namely regular exercise and healthy eating with a menopause diet, also protect your brain, the AHA reports.
Read more: Understanding the Causes of Night Sweats
Late Menopause and Breast Cancer Risk
Breast cancer risk also increases with advancing age, and there is some suggestion that late menopause further fuels this risk, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. That's because estrogen feeds certain breast cancers, helping them to grow.
According to an analysis published in October 2012 in The Lancet, when researchers culled data from 117 studies, they found that women who go through menopause later in life are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than women who go through menopause early. Specifically, for every year older a woman was when she entered menopause, breast cancer risk increased by about 3 percent, the study showed.
Try to get ahead of this by controlling what you can, Dr. Faubion says. "We know that obesity is a significant risk factor for breast cancer, as is alcohol intake," she says "Taking steps to maintain a normal weight and watching how much alcohol you consume can all help lower your risk beyond the things that we don't have control over, such as family history and age. "
Regardless of the age at which you enter menopause, the symptoms can be debilitating. There are many natural and prescription treatments that help. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and the possible ways to alleviate them. These decisions are highly individualized and take many factors, including your personal and family history, into account, Dr. Faubion says.
- North American Menopause Society: “Menopause FAQ”
- American Heart Association: “Cardiovascular Disease: Women’s No. 1 Health Threat”
- BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology: "Impact of a Premature Menopause on Cognitive Function in Later Life”
- American Heart Association: “My Life Check | Life's Simple 7”
- The Lancet: “Menarche, Menopause, and Breast Cancer Risk: Individual Participant Meta-analysis, Including 118,964 Women with Breast Cancer from 117 Epidemiological Studies”
- Susan G. Komen Foundation: "Age at Menopause"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.