At some point in a woman's life she will enter into a period called menopause. Unlike what the name might suggest, menstruation does not "pause" upon entering menopause. Rather, it ceases to occur from this point on, ending the fertile, reproductive time for females.
The North American Menopause Society says menopause typically begins around age 51. It also may be induced through medical intervention at an earlier age.
Women are encouraged to discuss menopause with their healthcare providers so they can better understand their bodies. That's especially important since certain myths about menopause still prevail.
Myth #1: Menopause is a disease. Menopause is an inevitable part of aging and a process that occurs naturally and spontaneously. Menopause affects each woman differently. While some women struggle with any number of symptoms, others may feel as if their lives have not changed much at all since entering menopause.
Myth #2: Menopause happens suddenly. Women do not wake up one day and discover they have entered menopause. Doctors at the Menopause Center at Texas Children's Hospital's Pavilion for Women say that menopause is characterized by a subtle fluctuation of hormones that will gradually lead to menopause. Unless menopause results from a hysterectomy procedure or another medical intervention, it should happen slowly over the course of a few years. The period leading up to a last menstrual period is called perimenopause.
Myth #3: Perimenopause eliminates pregnancy risk. A woman is not totally protected from an unplanned pregnancy until a year has passed since her most recent menstrual cycle. Even if periods are infrequent or unreliable, the NAMS advises that women choose another effective method of birth control if they do not want another pregnancy.
Myth #4: Menopause means gaining weight. Many women gain weight after menopause, and hormonal changes can affect the body's metabolism. However, weight gain can be controlled. A 2003 study from researchers at the Department of Epidemiology, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh studied 535 premenopausal women who were followed throughout menopause. The study discovered that, after five years, women were able to remain at or below their baseline weight by following a strict diet and exercising regularly. Women generally need cut their calorie intake by 200 calories after reaching menopause to keep weight down.
Myth #5: All hormone replacement therapies are the same. NAMS says it is now believed that women who have had a hysterectomy can take estrogen alone, but those who still have a uterus need progestogen added to protect against endometrial cancer. Doctors can work with women to customize hormone replacement therapies to reduce risks.
Myth #6: Hot flashes are unavoidable. Hormonal shifts trigger hot flashes in many menopausal women. However, hot flashes may vary in frequency and intensity depending on the individual. In addition, Dr. Sheryl Ross, OB/GYN at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, says the first two or three years of menopause tend to be the worst for hot flashes. After those initial two or three years, hot flashes may lessen in intensity or become less frequent.
Menopause can be a confusing time for women, as it involves changes to the body women have not yet experienced. Women can combat that confusion by discussing their symptoms or concerns with their physicians.