When you're in your 30s and early 40s, menopause seems a long way off - something that happens to much older women. In fact, the road to menopause is actually a gradual one and the process begins years before you actually go 12 consecutive months without a period, which is the medical definition of menopause.
In recent years, doctors have given a name to those years before you stop having periods: perimenopause. In this country, the average age of menopause is 51, but if you're entering menopause naturally (and not because of surgery or other medical issues), you might detect the first subtle hints that you are in perimenopause a decade before that.
Signs of perimenopause may include:
- Increasingly erratic disruptions in your menstrual cycle
- Hot flashes
- Breast tenderness
- Decreased vaginal lubrication
- Intermittent bleeding between periods
- Sleep problems caused by night sweats
- Fluctuations in hormone levels
It's important to note that perimenopause is not the only reason you could be experiencing some of these symptoms so check with your doctor to make sure you know what's going on.
Although the average age of menopause is about 51, many women may go through the transition years earlier or later. Some of the timing can be attributed to genetics, but there are other factors that could be at play as well.
Smokers generally reach menopause a year and a half earlier than average as do women who have been treated for depression, epilepsy or childhood cancers or who have been exposed to certain viruses or toxic chemicals.
There is some research that indicates that heavier women and women with higher childhood cognitive test scores may reach menopause later but the studies are not conclusive on this point.
There's also some evidence that women who have taken supplemental estrogen (in birth control pills, for example) during the previous five years may reach menopause later than average.
But contrary to some popular folklore, none of the following affect the age that you experience perimenopause: the age when you started menstruating, race, marital status and whether you are rich or poor.
You might think that entering perimenopause means you don't have to worry about getting pregnant. You would be wrong. As long as you are menstruating, you could technically still become pregnant. If you want to avoid that, talk to your doctor about your birth control options.