It happens to every woman at some point: the menopause. Hot flushes, disturbed sleep, the last monthly period and vaginal dryness – most women worry about this period in their lives, or respect it at least. And it’s not a short period of time, either, but rather a process lasting several years. But how long does the female menopause last, when does it begin, and are there different stages to it?
The term menopause
To understand this phase of life better, we need to explain the terminology. The term menopause refers to the process women go through, which lasts several years. Climacterium is the medical term that is often used for this life phase. The term menopause, on the other hand, relates in its strictest medical sense to female menstruation. This term is associated with the final monthly period.
How long does the female menopause last and when does it begin?
It is hard to say exactly when the female menopause begins. As a guide, women have their last monthly period between the ages of 50 and 51. This is just a rule of thumb, however, as some women have their last period as early as their mid-forties, while other don’t have it until their mid-fifties. Women go through lots of physical changes, both in the years leading up to their last monthly period and beyond. In total, the female body needs between ten and fifteen years to go through all the different phases of the menopause. There are even women who have their last monthly period as young as 35. On the other hand, other women don’t reach this point until the age of 55. But these are exceptions. One thing that is certain is that something happens in the female body even before the last monthly period. Below, we look at the various stages of the female menopause.
The different stages of the female menopause
The years leading up to the menopause are known as the pre-menopause. Women usually go through the pre-menopause between the age of 45 and 50. In some women, this process of change starts at the age of 40 or even earlier. During this period, women notice their monthly periods becoming more irregular, with bigger gaps between them. The hormonal balance generally changes, as production of the hormone progesterone decrease, for example. This hormone prepares the female body for pregnancy, which is why pregnant women have particularly high progesterone levels. The closer a woman gets to the final monthly period, the less of this hormone is produced. Ovulation also occurs more and more infrequently during this stage. Many women also report increased breast tenderness, water retention, irritability and headaches before their period during this stage.
The period from one or two years before the final monthly period to one or two years after the final monthly period is the period experts refer to as the perimenopause. Follicle maturation in the ovaries decreases, and ovulation therefore almost never occurs. This also affects progesterone levels. As a result, women experience even more disruption to their monthly periods during this stage. At some point, women then stop having their monthly period. Even after the last monthly period, the body still needs time to adjust to the new hormone balance. This period is also known as the perimenopause, as the absence of follicular maturation in the ovaries leads to a sharp drop in oestrogen production. All these changes, in particular the hormonal changes, also lead to the symptoms which women complain of during the menopause: hot flushes, sweating, disturbed sleep, vaginal dryness, mood swings and dizziness.
The time after the perimenopause is known as the post-menopause. During this period, oestrogen and gestagen production finally stop completely. On average, this phase in a woman’s life typically lasts until around the age of 65 – depending on when the last monthly period is. In this stage of the female menopause, women may suffer increasingly from hair loss, dry skin, vaginal dryness and brittle bones. Whilst levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen dramatically lower, testosterone levels remain the same, which can also lead to an increase in facial hair. At the same time, lots of women continue to be plagued by hot flushes, sweating and disturbed sleep during this stage.
Just like the onset of the menopause, different women experience the end differently, too. ‘Senium’ (old age) – the stage which follows the menopause – usually begins between the age of 60 and 65.
The age at which women go through menopause and the course it takes differs from one woman to the next. Yet all women go through these various stages – some earlier, some later, and even taking different amounts of time. Some women also have virtually no symptoms, only realising they are in the menopause when they experience the last monthly period.
In our next article, we look at the symptoms affecting women during the female menopause.