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What Is Menopause?
Menopause is the cessation of the menstrual cycle and it therefore marks the end of the fertile stage of a woman's life. It has officially taken place when a woman has not had a period for twelve consecutive months. When this happens the ovaries are no longer releasing eggs to be fertilized and female hormone levels have dropped dramatically.
While menopause is the end stage of menstruation, the years before cessation when a woman experiences menopausal symptoms is usually considered to be part of the menopause experience. This phase is called perimenopause. During these years menopause has not occurred, but the body has started transitioning. The full transition of menopause, from perimenopause to postmenopause, can take several years, sometimes longer than a decade.
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The Beginning of Menopause
So, when does menopause start for most women? There is no set age when menstruation stops as the end of a woman's fertile period is an individual experience. There are averages however. According to the National Institute of Aging the average age that a woman has her last period is 51. This does not mean that menopause will not occur during a woman's forties, or even thirties in some cases. Some women may menstruate well into their fifties.
There are factors that may contribute to an early menopause. Smoking, some operations, a serious illness, and even genetics can contribute to what is known as premature menopause — when a woman has her last period before the age of 40. There is nothing wrong when this happens, but it can be difficult for some women emotionally to begin transitioning at an earlier age.
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The Beginning of Perimenopause
This first stage of menopause usually starts somewhere in a woman's 40's, although it can begin earlier. Perimenopause is a transition stage in which the ovaries are still producing estrogen, but levels are dropping. A woman is still fertile during this time. It is because of the hormonal changes that a woman may experience menopausal symptoms. Signs that perimenopause have started include:
- Changes to your period, such as missed periods, irregular periods, spotting, or heavy bleeding
- Hot flashes, which feel like a sudden rush of heat either all over the body or in the upper portion
- Vaginal dryness, which occurs because the changes in estrogen levels cause tissue to become drier and thinner
- Bladder problems such as incontinence and possibly an increase in urinary tract infections
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in your interest in sex, some women become less interested while for others interest increases
- Moodiness, irritability, and mild depression
This phase usually lasts from two to five years, although some women only experience symptoms for several months before menstruation stops.
When does menopause start? When the menstrual cycle has ceased for a full year. It is the end of one phase, but the beginning of another. Do not worry about when menopause begins for you, but make sure you talk to your doctor about your well-being during this time.
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National Institute of Aging <http://www.nia.nih.gov/healthinformation/publications/menopause.htm>
Stages of Menopause <http://www.menopause-natural.com/menopause_stages.html>