The Basics of Menopause

The Basics of Menopause (<i>cont'd</i>)

Other changes and signs of menopause include:

  • hot flashes (sudden warm feeling, sometimes with blushing)
  • night sweats (hot flashes that occur at night, often disrupting sleep)
  • fatigue (probably from disrupted sleep patterns)
  • mood swings
  • early morning awakening
  • vaginal dryness
  • fluctuations in sexual desire or response
  • difficulty sleeping

Although there is a wide range of possible menopause-related conditions, most women going through natural menopause have only mild disturbances during the perimenopausal years. However, you should be aware that there are at least two major health conditions that can develop in the years ahead because of the decrease in hormone production that occurs at menopause: coronary artery disease and osteoporosis.

Up until menopause, estrogen helps protect against plaque buildup in your arteries. It does this by helping to raise HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), which helps remove LDL-cholesterol (the type that contributes to the accumulation of fat deposits called plaque along artery walls). After menopause, your risk for developing coronary artery disease (CAD) — a condition in which the veins and arteries that take blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked by plaque — increases steadily. Heart attack and stroke are caused by atherosclerotic disease, in most cases.

Also, the body's own estrogen helps prevent bone loss and works together with calcium and other hormones and minerals to help build bones. Your body constantly builds and remodels bone through a process called resorption and deposition. Up until around age 30, the body makes more new bone than it breaks down. But, once estrogen levels start to decline, this process also slows down. By menopause, your body breaks down more bone than it rebuilds. In the years immediately after menopause, some women risk losing as much as 20 percent of their bone mass. Although bone loss eventually levels out in your late 50s, in the years ahead, keeping bone structures strong and healthy to prevent osteoporosis becomes more of a challenge. Osteoporosis occurs when bones become too weak and brittle to support normal activities.

Not all women develop heart disease or osteoporosis. Many more things affect your heart and your bones than estrogen alone. For example, exercise improves your cardiovascular system — your heart, lungs and blood vessels — at any age. It can help decrease high blood pressure, a concern for one out of every three women over age 60. It can also help reduce weight gain, a major risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and many other health conditions common to older women. You are never too old to begin or continue exercising. A simple walking routine for 30 minutes three to five days a week can provide health benefits. There are other exercise options. Talk to your health care professional about which ones fit your lifestyle and medical needs.

If your bones are strong and healthy as you enter menopause, you'll have better bone structure to sustain you as you age. Bone loss varies from woman to woman. You can also improve bone strength as you age by exercising regularly and making sure you get enough calcium in your diet or from supplements. Exercise also helps improve balance, muscle tone and flexibility, which can diminish with aging. Weakness in these areas can lead to more frequent falls, broken bones and longer healing periods.

Women today can expect to live as much as one-third of their lives beyond menopause. In the next decade, more women than ever before — as many as 52 million — will be age 50 or older. The years following menopause can be healthy years, depending on how you take care of yourself.

Copyright 2003 National Women's Health Resource Center Inc. (NWHRC)