Life – it’s full of stages and phases. One day you’re bouncing around at a festival, the next you’re waking up with aching joints. With mid-life, usually comes hormonal changes which cause a range of new and often unexpected symptoms.
The menopause is a transitional process that all women will go through, typically lasting between 7 and 14 years. Yet, so much is still being discovered about this period, especially thanks to menopause campaigners in the public eye, such as Davina McCall and Lisa Snowdon, so advice is constantly evolving.
If you’re experiencing new symptoms and wondering 'what is menopause?!', this feature covers everything you need to know, including insight from a menopause doctor. Let’s find out more.
What is menopause?
Your mum went through it, your grandmother went through it – and now it’s your turn. According to the NHS, menopause is the time when periods stop due to declining oestrogen levels, typically around the ages of between 45 and 55.
In the run up to this, perimenopause takes place. This is the period when your oestrogen levels begin to drop, and this can begin as early as your late 30s. Perimenopause symptoms may include; brain fog, irregular periods, and hot flushes, that carry on into the menopause. Menopause itself is distinguished by not having a period for 12 months.
Who goes through menopause and when?
Every woman, except those who have had their ovaries removed before puberty, will experience menopause. You may have seen a lot about this in the press recently, and you might have also noticed one common theme: all the women look the same. Fifty-something silver-haired white women looking flushed, obvs.
If this doesn’t represent your reality, you’re not alone. There has been much debate around a need for greater representation of menopausal women in the media. Specifically, women of colour. It’s an area that mum, grandmother and speaker Karen Arthur is passionate about. Her popular podcast ‘Menopause whilst black’ offers a refreshing conversation about diversity in menopause, putting black British women front and centre by sharing their stories.
Typical menopause age
So, will all women go through menopause at the average UK age of 52? Not necessarily.
From the perspective of Dr Shahzadi Harper, a menopause doctor, some women can also experience a natural early menopause from around 40-45 years old – something that is true of about 5-7% of women.
In this insightful video, the menopause doctor also explains that for 1% of women, menopause can occur before 40, owing to premature ovarian insufficiency.
The reality is that we’re all different, with numerous lifestyle and personal factors that determine our menopause age, here’s some of the most important:
Race and ethnicity
It can often feel like there’s just one conversation around menopause, when there are many different narratives out there. So you might be surprised to know that ethnicity can play its role too. The Study of Women's Health Across the Nation (SWAN) in 1996 found that black women reach menopause, on average, two years earlier that the national median age. That’s not all, black women also spend more time in menopause transition. It also found that Black and Latina women tend to experience ‘vasomotor symptoms’ more (that’s hot flushes and night sweats) compared to white women.
There is, however, one factor that can influence your menopause age more than any other. It’s the age that your mother went through menopause.
“Menopause is strongly genetically linked, so you’re very likely to fall within a few years either way of the age your mother was at menopause,” says Nanette Santoro, MD, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Colorado-Denver School of Medicine. That said, lifestyle can play its part in your personal health history and there are other factors to take into consideration alongside this.
It will come as no surprise that smoking does more damage to a woman’s ovaries than any other lifestyle factor. As such, researchers at the University of Hong Kong discovered that women who smoke are more likely to reach menopause about a year earlier than those who don’t (Pittman, 2011).
Medicine and health conditions
Certain medicines and conditions have a direct impact on ovary health. One of these is chemotherapy. Additionally, there is a link between early menopause and having epilepsy.
Surgery and ovary removal
Women who’ve had some surgeries may enter menopause early. This includes surgery for endometriosis, a single ovary removal (oophorectomy), and the removal of the uterus (hysterectomy), which can impact the oestrogen and progesterone levels in the body. Women who have both ovaries removed (bilateral oophorectomy) will go into menopause immediately – this is also known as surgical menopause.
Different stages of menopause
As a final thought, it’s worth sharing the three stages of menopause, so you can chart your journey.
Also known as the time leading up to menopause age, perimenopause is marked by a decline in hormones and erratic or irregular menstrual cycles. For most women this is between four and eight years, occurring, on average, anytime from your 30s through to 50s. Some women experience side effects like hot flushes, brain fog and vaginal dryness, but symptoms vary from woman to woman.
Click here to read more about common perimenopause symptoms.
This takes place once your body stops producing sufficient levels of oestrogen for menstrual cycles, and you've gone without a period for a year.
After 12 months of no menstrual cycles, you enter a phase of post-menopause. This is a new chapter in your life, and one without periods or the possibility of pregnancy. Some of the menopause symptoms you had may continue to linger, but will often be less intense.