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What is Menopause?
Estrogen and progesterone, the so-called “female hormones” are largely responsible for regulation of the menstrual cycle in women. In women over the age of approximately 45, the ovaries gradually stop producing these hormones, causing a range of symptoms which are collectively referred to as menopause.
Menopause is a life stage that all women go through, and “officially” begins twelve months after a woman’s last menstrual period. Most women experience symptoms before the start of menopause. This stage is known as premenopause or perimenopause.
Symptoms of premenopause and menopause can include the following:
- Irregular periods
- Vaginal dryness
- Mood swings
- Hot flashes
- Sleep disturbances
- Thinning hair
- Reduction in breast size, and/or increase in abdominal fat
- Reduced fertility
Some of these symptoms, such as mood swings and hot flashes, are caused by rapidly fluctuating hormone levels. Others, such as reduced fertility and vaginal dryness, are simply the result of overall lower hormone levels.
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Importance of Blood Tests for Menopause
Confirming that these symptoms are the result of menopause is important for two reasons.
The first reason is to rule out any diseases which might be the cause of the symptoms, such as cancer of the reproductive organs. Second, because post-menopause, women have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. This is because estrogen has a protective effect which helps reduce the risk of these diseases developing or worsening.
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Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH)
FSH is a hormone which is produced in the ovaries and is important in the menstrual cycle for stimulating the maturation of eggs.
The FSH test is often used to evaluate the function of the pituitary gland, and is also one of the main blood tests used to confirm that menopause has begun. A marked reduction in FSH levels indicates that egg maturation is slowing down or ceasing.
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Testing estrogen levels is another effective way of determining whether a woman has begun premenopause or menopause. Estrogen levels gradually reduce during premenopause, and drop to very low levels during the post-menopausal stage.
This test is often ordered for women who are on hormone-replacement treatments, to determine whether adequate levels of synthetic estrogen are being maintained.
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A doctor might order additional tests to assess risk factors for diseases associated with menopause, common conditions that can cause menopause-like symptoms, and general health.
Levels of TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) and free T4 (thyroxine) might be checked to test thyroid gland function. Many older people, women especially, experience reduced thyroid function. Symptoms of reduced thyroid function can include depression and other menopausal signs, so thyroid function tests are important to rule out other potential causes of menopause symptoms.
Comprehensive Metabolic Panel
This set of fourteen tests checks blood glucose levels, blood protein levels, and electrolyte balance, and also evaluates kidney and liver function. The metabolic panel is often ordered for women who are thinking about using hormone replacement therapy to manage menopause symptoms.
This test measures levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol in the blood, to evaluate a woman’s risk of cardiovascular disease. This is important because women become more vulnerable to cardiovascular disease after menopause.