Menopause happens when you haven’t had a period for 12 straight months and you aren’t pregnant or sick. It’s a normal part of aging.
It happens because female sex hormone levels naturally go down as you get older. Your ovaries eventually stop releasing eggs, so you’ll no longer have periods or be able to get pregnant.
Most women go through menopause in their 40s or 50s. But that can vary widely. One study found that half of the women in the U.S. reach menopause before about age 52. Some women may go through “the change” earlier if they’ve had surgery to remove their uterus or ovaries or are having certain treatments for cancer.
Are You Headed for Menopause?
You may start to notice changes months or years before you are in menopause. You may have hot flashes and irregular periods. This time is called perimenopause.
You won’t know exactly when your menopause will hit. All you can do is pay attention to how you’re feeling and notice changes. Keep in mind that symptoms vary greatly from woman to woman. Some women have no symptoms at all.
Changes You May Notice
Your periods become irregular.
This is the classic sign that you are on your way to menopause. Your periods may come more often or less often, be heavier or lighter, or last longer or shorter than before.
When you’re in perimenopause, it can be hard to predict when, or if, your next period may come. It’s also harder to gauge how long your period will last or if your flow will be heavy or light. It’s harder to get pregnant during this phase, but it’s still possible as long as you have periods.
Some chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer can also make your periods irregular. Any bleeding, even just spotting, after menopause isn’t normal. You need to talk to your doctor.
You have hot flashes and night sweats.
Hot flashes can make you feel warm or hot suddenly for no apparent reason. Your skin may flush red and your heart may beat faster. Then you may feel suddenly cold.
Night sweats are hot flashes that happen during sleep. They can be so intense they wake you up.
Like so many symptoms of menopause, hot flashes and night sweats can vary a lot from woman to woman. They can last 1 minute or 5 minutes. They can be mild or severe. You can have several an hour, one a week, or never have them.
For some women, these symptoms go on for years or decades after they’ve stopped their periods — into the time called postmenopause.
If you have hot flashes but aren’t sure it’s related to menopause, talk to your doctor. There are medical conditions and even medications that can bring them on, too.
You have trouble sleeping.
Waking up during the night or having trouble going to sleep can happen for lots of reasons, but if you don’t typically have problems sleeping, it may be a sign you’re approaching menopause. Sometimes it’s caused by other menopausal symptoms like night sweats. If sleep problems hang on for a while, and you can’t pinpoint why, it may be time to tell your doctor.
You feel moody.
Lots of things can affect your mood, and that includes the change in hormone that happens around menopause. If you’ve had anxiety or depression in the past, your symptoms may worsen during menopause. Whatever the reason, you deserve to feel good. If you’ve been down for more than a few weeks, tell your doctor. Together, you can decide on a treatment to help you feel better.
You forget things.
Both men and women can have some minor memory lapses during middle age: not being able to think of a word or losing the car keys. Usually it’s no big deal. Forgetfulness can stem from not only menopause but also from stress. If you’re worried that you’re forgetting too much, let your doctor know.
You feel differently about sex.
Some women say they are less interested in sex or have trouble getting aroused when they are in menopause. Other women say they enjoy sex more and feel freer because they don’t have to worry about things like getting pregnant.
During menopause, the skin around your vagina may become drier. This can make sex hurt. Gels called “personal lubricants” can help.
You have physical changes.
You may also notice your hair and skin become drier and thinner. Some women gain weight during menopause. Your body also might change so that you have more fat around the waist and more fat and less muscle in general. You may also find it a little harder to move, with stiff joints or joints that hurt. It’s important to stay active. You may need to work harder to keep your strength and stay in shape.