From periods to pap smears, childbirth to breastfeeding – surely as women we’ve been through enough?
But whether you’ve had kids or not, once your baby making years are behind you another change is on the horizon. Yep, the big M, the grand climacteric, reverse puberty, the change or as it’s clinically called: menopause.
As we know, this “change of life’, is your body’s natural process of formally farewelling your reproductive years.
Technically, menopause is the day 12 months after your final period. The following day it’s all over – you’re officially post-menopausal. But it’s the lead up it, a transitional time known as perimenopause, where the major changes and unpleasant symptoms take place.
So, when can we expect these changes?
It might be sooner than you’d think. Most Australian women experience menopause somewhere between 45 and 55. But we’re all different. For some it happens before they’re even 40, aptly called premature menopause.
Unfortunately, there’s no way of predicting the age you will reach menopause or begin your perimenopausal journey.
But studies have shown that there are range of factors that can give you a pretty good idea. So, get your pen and paper ready to do the math.
Genetics play a big role. One of the best ways to predict when you’ll reach menopause is to ask your mum when it happened for her.
It’s also a good idea to talk to other women in your life, your grandmother, sister and see if there is a pattern. While it’s not an exact science studies show it’s the best indicator of when it will happen for you.
Once you have that number, there are other factors to consider.
In case you needed another reason to ditch the ciggies smokers also tend to reach menopause a couple of years earlier than they would have otherwise. Smoking is bad news for oestrogen, a sex hormone that’s vital for regulating your reproductive system. It can also wreak havoc other parts of your body, like your ovaries and reproductive system.
Based on this train of thought, if you or your mum smoke, factor this into your calculations. If your mum smoked but you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll reach menopause later than she did and vice versa.
Not only do smokers tend to go through menopause sooner, they’re also more likely to get hit with more severe menopausal symptoms. Hot flashes may be more intense and a good night sleep more elusive.
Chemotherapy or radiation therapy are incredibly hard on the body and can also impact on your ovaries and reproductive organs. Some of the medications used in chemo can be so damaging to your ovaries that it can bring on premature menopause during or after treatment.
Younger women going through chemotherapy will often experience ‘temporary menopause’ or they might have irregular periods while they’re having treatment. If your natural cycle does return to normal once you’ve finished chemo or radiation therapy, there’s a good chance you’ll reach menopause a few years earlier than you would have otherwise.
If you’ve had your ovaries (oophorectomy) or uterus (hysterectomy) removed, it can impact the age you’ll reach menopause.
Women who have their ovaries taken out might experience menopause within 48 hours of surgery, while others can develop later. But for women who undergo a hysterectomy and still have their ovaries, might go into menopause 1-4 years earlier.
Any type of surgery that affects your reproductive organs can leave you with tissue damage, which can also bring on menopause earlier.
There’s evidence to suggest that your body mass index (BMI) can also play a role in determining when you’ll reach menopause. If you’re underweight, you may be more likely to experience early menopause. On the other hand, if you’re overweight or obese you’re more likely to experience menopause later in life.
Do you suffer from health conditions like an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and thyroid issues? If so, that means you may hit menopause a few years earlier.
Autoimmune conditions can cause the immune system to attack the body, and in some cases, the ovaries are the target. This can affect the ability to produce hormones needed to maintain the reproductive system, which can ultimately lead to early menopause.
Other health conditions like HIV, chromosomal abnormalities and chronic fatigue syndrome have also been linked to early or premature menopause.
If you’ve birthed and breastfed at least one baby, research suggests you’re less likely to go through early menopause (before 45 years-old).
The study found the risk was lowest among those who breast-fed exclusively.
Because pregnancy and breastfeeding temporarily prevent ovulation, researchers believe that may slow the natural depletion of ovarian follicles over time.
And while it may prevent early menopause, there is no evidence to suggest pregnancy and breastfeeding will delay menopause once you hit your mid-40s.
Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will delay or stop menopause. But you can try to avoid things that bring it on sooner, like not smoking.
It’s a cliché but knowledge is power. Knowing when to expect symptoms and what that looks like - may take some of the sting out of it when the time comes for your menopause transition.
And remember, you’re not alone in this.