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Technically, menopause is a woman's last natural period, but this definition is much too narrow; we all use the term menopause to refer to a broad stretch of life during which a woman's reproductive capabilities wind down. This span of midlife years is sometimes called the change of life. Climacteric is another term you might hear; it is a little less ominous than "the change."
In fact, climacteric, in another context, refers to the condition of fruit just before it is ripe -- an apt analogy. You can also think of the climacteric as a counterpart to puberty; during puberty, a girl experiences menarche (the beginning of menstruation), and during the climacteric, a woman experiences menopause (the end of menstruation).
Around menopause, a woman's principal sex glands, the ovaries, begin to shut down. Ovulation, the process in which eggs are produced, stops, and the monthly cycle becomes unpredictable or absent. Also, during menopause, the ovaries gradually stop producing their hormones, primarily estrogen and progesterone, and then, finally, testosterone.
Menopause may occur gradually -- with hormonal changes and menopausal symptoms lasting many years -- or it may happen very quickly. Some women notice subtle changes starting in their 30s, which may include irregular periods, mild flushing sensations, and premenstrual mood changes.
Many women will have no menopausal symptoms whatsoever, except that their periods disappear in their 50s. The average age of natural menopause is 51, but natural menopause can occur anytime between 40 and 60. The exact timing depends on several factors, including heredity and environment, such as diet and exposure to toxins or hormones.
Surgical menopause occurs when a woman's ovaries have been surgically removed. Although surgical menopause has its own set of concerns, many of its discomforts and health problems are shared with natural menopause.
The physiologic events experienced during menopause go along with a lot of other changes in a woman's life. The end of ovulation represents the end of childbearing years, and to the extent that a woman connects her own self-image with her childbearing ability, this may or may not be of importance to her. Sexually, menopause is the beginning of the time when sex is no longer connected to having babies. For some, this is a liberating experience, and many women enjoy sex enormously after menopause -- even more than before. For other women, sex may seem an increasing burden.
Finally, menopause represents the passage into another generation. As parents age and children mature, the midlife woman must adapt to changes around her. Some women, who have been stay-at-home mothers, may choose to join the workforce once they have "empty nests." Others may be presented with the task of caring for elderly parents. And still others may have adult children returning to the home, often with toddlers in tow, further taxing the energies of the midlife woman.
The exciting news about menopause today, however, is that women are better informed and are more proactive in their approach to their mature years than ever before. With forty years of life ahead of her, a woman of forty-something can't afford to sit quietly and let the world pass her by.
A large component of menopause is the production, or the lack or production, of certain hormones. We will review this process in the next section.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.