Making Sense of Menopause

Woman in front of tent holding mug

In the United States, the average woman reaches menopause at age 51. Statistics show that by the year 2020, there will be more than 50 million women in the U.S. over 51 years of age – does this group include you? If it does, you may begin experiencing the symptoms of menopause in the next few years.

Midlife brings a host of symptoms and many women have questions about what they're experiencing, whether these symptoms are related to menopause and how to safely and effectively manage them. That's why the Center for Women's Health is hosting Making Sense of Menopause on November 12. Women who attend the conference will have their questions and concerns about menopause addressed by experts from OHSU and beyond. 

In the meantime, we talked to Karen Adams, M.D., OB/GYN and women's midlife care expert at the Center for Women's Health, who shared some of the basics with us.

Q: What's going on in my body during menopause?

Dr. Adams: As we get older, our ovaries become less responsive to the brain's signals to release hormones and so they slowly stop making estrogen. During menopause, a woman's body adjusts to this lower overall level of estrogen. This decrease in estrogen interacts with all of the body's systems and can cause a variety of symptoms.

Q: What symptoms are most common?

Dr. Adams: The definition of menopause is actually no period for a full year. So 100% of women will have a change in their bleeding pattern. For most, this means they will miss a period here and there until they stop altogether, but some women experience increased bleeding or frequent spotting.

80% of U.S. women have hot flashes or night sweats. Their frequency and intensity varies widely, as does how long women continue having them. On average, women experience them for about four years but some women have them for ten years or longer.

Other common symptoms include vaginal dryness, which usually occurs after menopause is achieved, and mood changes. It's important to note that menopause doesn't cause depression, but women with a history of depression are more likely to experience it again during the transition to menopause.

Q: What treatment options are available?

Dr. Adams: There are a wide variety of treatments, ranging from simple lifestyle changes to medical treatment. Depending on how problematic the symptoms are each woman should discuss an individual treatment plan with her health care provider.

Lifestyle changes can be as simple as dressing in layers and having a fan at your desk to cope with hot flashes. Avoiding spicy foods, refraining from smoking and alcohol, and regular exercise also help.

For women who need or want medical treatment, estrogen pills or patches, along with progesterone for women who have not had a hysterectomy, can decrease hot flashes markedly within two weeks. Some types of antidepressants can also help with hot flashes, and could be an especially good choice for women who are also experiencing mood changes.

Q: What can I do to stay healthy before, during, and after menopause?

Dr. Adams: Seven out of 10 leading causes of death in the United States are lifestyle related. So while we all have to live with the genetic cards we're dealt, we have a great deal of control over our health. Women who exercise, eat healthy foods, don't smoke and are close to their ideal body weight tend to have fewer health problems overall and fewer symptoms during menopause. The healthier you are, the easier your transition will be.

We hope to see you on November 12 at Making Sense of Menopause! Dr. Adams will be there, along with other experts from OHSU and around the country. Our goal is for you to leave confidently equipped to discuss menopause with your health care provider.