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You may or may not have given it much thought yet, but menopause—the official end of your reproductive years—is something that will happen sooner or later.
“It’s unlike almost any other condition for women's health,” says Mache Seibel, M.D., a Boston-based OB/GYN and author of The Estrogen Fix. “Not everyone gets pregnant. Not everyone has cancer. Not everyone has infertility. But everyone has menopause if you live long enough.”
There’s a lot of information out there about this monumental time in your life. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, too. That’s why we touched base with five healthcare providers who specialize in menopause for the words of wisdom they share with friends. Here’s what specialists want you to know about the women’s health transition—and how to feel your best throughout.
You’re likely referring to it incorrectly.
“What people think of as ‘menopause’ is actually ‘perimenopause,’” says Kelly Culwell, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN. Perimenopause symptoms can occur for 10 or more years leading up to menopause, but Dr. Culwell says, the actual "menopause" is technically defined as the time when a woman has not had periods for a year.
While age can vary greatly for when both perimenopause and menopause occur, the average for menopause in the U.S. is 52.
Symptoms aren’t one-size-fits-all.
The changes each person experiences will vary, but the first sign of perimenopause is often a change to your menstrual cycle. Periods can become lighter and more infrequent or heavier and more frequent, or both intermittently (yay!), says Dr. Culwell.
Waking up at night, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness can also all be perimenopausal symptoms, says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine. But more unusual symptoms like body achiness can crop up, too, she says.
You should seek out a specialist.
Your body experiences so many changes during this time, so it’s a good idea to see a health professional with expertise in the field. Getting a recommendation from a friend or family member is always an option, or you can use The North American Menopause Society’s database to find certified menopause practitioners near you. These providers require recertification every three years, so you can feel confident they’re up-to-date on the latest research and treatments.
And make sure you feel comfortable talking to the provider you pick. If there’s one broad-stroke message Rebecca C. Brightman, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai wants people to know, it’s that you don’t have to suffer alone. “You need somebody you can discuss these things with,” she says.
There are many helpful treatment options.
Just as there are plenty of symptoms that fall under the perimenopause umbrella, there are also plenty of medications and treatments to alleviate them. But first, your doctor may want to rule out other causes beyond perimenopause. “While any new symptoms you may be experiencing are likely perfectly normal, you may need to have additional tests to make sure nothing else is going on,” says Dr. Culwell.
Don't be scared to start low-dose hormonal therapy, for example, if you’re suffering from symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, or vaginal dryness, she suggests. “As long as you don't have any health problems that keep you from being able to safely use these medications, they can provide a lot of relief during this transition,” says Dr. Culwell.
Vaginal dryness is to be expected.
In fact, more than half of menopausal women worry about it. Dr. Minkin notes that it can also pop up years later. “If you have been fine, haven't had a period in years, and then start experiencing vaginal dryness, it can be a post-menopausal symptom,” she says.
Fortunately, the condition responds to vaginal estrogen therapy, she says. “I also recommend that folks who want to avoid hormones try an over-the-counter vaginal moisturizer that can replenish dry vaginal cells and increase moisture and comfort,” says Dr. Minkin.
Menopause can be a time of new beginnings.
There’s a lot of negativity out there about menopause—symptoms, side effects, suffering. But it’s a good opportunity to give your body a healthy reset, with a renewed focus on diet, physical activity, and sleep, says Odile Bagot, an OB/GYN in Strasbourg, France, and author of Menopause: No Need to Panic.
“Menopause is a new and wonderful time of life,” she says. “You can give free rein to your creativity, because yes, it is a fruitful period from an intellectual, artistic, spiritual, or social point of view.” She provides this advice to her friends to help them understand, “Being menopausal is not to suddenly become old; on the contrary, it is to become aware of all that life has given us and to continue to lead a fruitful life.”
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