As women, we grow up expecting certain milestones in our lives – getting our first period, buying our first bra, pap smears, mammograms and, finally, menopause.  It marks the end of our reproductive years and, while some women gladly welcome the change, others are sad to lose their fertility and they worry about the onset of menopause symptoms.  Many of us remember our grandmothers and mothers experiencing hot flashes during the transition but what happens when those symptoms show up much earlier in life and what can you do?

Symptoms

The average woman will go through menopause in her early 50s but anytime it happens before the age of 40, it is considered early or premature.  If you have started noticing a change in your body and are wondering if you could be going through “the change,” here is a list of common symptoms:

  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Changes in menstrual flow (heavier or lighter)
  • Hot flashes
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Decreased bladder control
  • Mood swings, irritability and/or mild depression
  • Dry skin, eyes, or mouth
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Trouble sleeping

Causes of Premature Menopause

There are a number of reasons why women go through menopause earlier than expected.  Most recently, researchers at Washington University’s School of Medicine theorized that women who were regularly exposed to phthalates, a chemical commonly found in cosmetics, were more likely to experience premature menopause.  More common reasons for the condition include:

  • Chemotherapy or radiation
  • Hysterectomy or oophorectomy (surgery to remove the ovaries)
  • Chromosomal defects
  • Genetics
  • Autoimmune disease including lupus and hypothyroidism

Other Health Risks

All menopausal women experience lower levels of estrogen which can increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, colon/ovarian cancer, dental disease and cataracts.  Since these women who go through the change earlier in life, they live for more years with less estrogen, which makes them even more susceptible to the health risks.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If your cycle is off or if you have any other symptoms, the first thing you should do is schedule an appointment with your doctor.  While there is no way to reverse menopause, there are many options for managing the physical and emotional changes that women often experience.

In order to diagnose premature menopause, you will have to undergo an exam which will likely include blood work to rule out pregnancy or thyroid disease.  Your estrogen and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) levels will probably be measured but, typically, a woman will not be considered to be truly in menopause until she has not menstruated for 12 consecutive months.