There are some good-natured jokes that have been made about menopause over the years, but for some women, it's not a laughing matter. Most of the millions of women going through menopause experience at least some of its symptoms, including hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, vaginal dryness, and memory lapses or difficulty concentrating.
"Menopause occurs when a woman permanently stops having menstrual periods," says Jill Waggoner, MD, an independently practicing physician on the medical staff at Methodist Health System. She explains that a woman has completed menopause when menstrual periods have ceased for one continuous year and that the average age of menopause is 50-51, but menopause can occur when a woman is in her early 40's or as late as her 60's. Some women undergo surgical menopause when their ovaries are removed. Early menopause can be caused by some medical treatments like chemotherapy or even by excessive athletic training.
Treatment? "It's not a disease, so there's no treatment," says Dr. Waggoner. "The goal is to relieve symptoms, which may last up to five years." She suggests eating healthy fats, like Omega 3 fish oil found in salmon and sardines, and exercising on a regular basis to help relieve symptoms. "Do weight-bearing exercises like walking to improve bone density," says Dr. Waggoner, adding that exercises decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke, and help to decrease stress. Many women ask if they should consider hormone replacement therapy (HRT). "The answer is unique for every woman," says Dr. Waggoner. "You should discuss it with your health care provider." She does encourage women to do their own research on HRT so they come to the discussion understanding the risks as well as the benefits.
Dr. Waggoner has another bit of advice for women undergoing menopause. "Think of menopause as a butterfly experience," she says. "It's a natural stage of life and a period of time for change – a new phase in life. Women who have this attitude fare better during menopause because they are happier."
She adds that many women feel frustrated when they reach menopause because they may have spent their entire lives doing for others and neglecting themselves. Think of menopause as a time of self-discovery and reassessment. What do you want to achieve? Get rid of some things you no longer need. Try new adventures. Start speaking your mind. A lot of stress comes from women not being able to do want they want to do. "Educate the people you love, and let them know that now is the time for you to do the things you want to do," says Dr. Waggoner. "Assure them that they will be okay and so will you."
How Do You Support the Menopausal Woman?
Educate yourself. Menopause is real, and for many women it can be life altering. By learning everything you can about this phase of life you can better understand and assist your family member or friend as she makes this transition.
Communicate and listen. It is very important for everyone involved to communicate effectively. Menopause not only affects the woman, but also those who love her. While it is important to express what you are feeling about the changes your loved one is experiencing, it is even more important to listen to their feelings about those changes.
Believe her. For many years women were told that what they were experiencing during menopause was "all in their head." It is critical that those around her believe her when she expresses what she is experiencing. Although you might not relate to what she is going through, the important thing is to be empathetic and supportive.
Be patient. Sometimes she might not be able to explain exactly what she is feeling or why she is feeling it. Just be patient until she works out her feelings and is ready to communicate them to you.
Don't personalize her mood swings. Remember this is not about you! So her anger or frustration is not directed at you. Give space and understanding, which can go a long way in maintaining the relationship. Remember she can be angry or sad or frustrated, and you can listen to her without making it about you.
To find a physician on the medical staff at Methodist Health System, call 214-947-0000 to talk to a physician referral specialist.
Texas law prohibits hospitals from practicing medicine. The physicians on the Methodist Health System medical staff are independent practitioners who are not employees or agents of Methodist Health System.
Dr. Jill Waggoner is an independently practicing physician on the medical staff at Methodist Charlton Medical Center and member of the Methodist Charlton Medical Group.