What is menopause?
Most women begin menopause between the ages of 45 and 55. Early menopause usually refers to onset before age 45. Premature menopause or premature ovarian insufficiency occurs before age 40.
Menopause occurs when your ovaries stop producing eggs, resulting in low estrogen levels. Estrogen is the hormone that controls the reproductive cycle. A woman is in menopause when she hasn’t had a period for more than 12 months. But associated symptoms, such as hot flashes, start long before menopause during a period called perimenopause.
Anything that damages your ovaries or stops estrogen production can cause early menopause. This includes chemotherapy for cancer or an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries). In these cases, your doctor will help prepare you for early menopause. But you can also go into menopause early even if your ovaries are still intact.
What causes early menopause?
There are several known causes of early menopause, although sometimes the cause can’t be determined.
If there’s no obvious medical reason for early menopause, the cause is likely genetic. Your age at menopause onset is likely inherited. Knowing when your mother started menopause can provide clues about when you’ll start your own. If your mother started menopause early, you’re more likely than average to do the same. However, genes tell only half the story.
Some lifestyle factors may have an impact on when you begin menopause. Smoking has anti-estrogen effects that can contribute to early menopause. An analysis in 2012 Trusted Source of several studies showed that long-term or regular smokers are likely to experience menopause sooner. Women who smoke may start menopause one to two years earlier than women who don’t smoke.
Body mass index (BMI) can also factor into early menopause. Estrogen is stored in fat tissue. Women who are very thin have fewer estrogen stores, which can be depleted sooner. Some research also suggests that a vegetarian diet, lack of exercise, and lack of sun exposure throughout your life can all cause early onset of menopause.
Some chromosomal defects can lead to early menopause. For example, Turner syndrome (also called monosomy X and gonadal dysgenesis) involves being born with an incomplete chromosome. Women with Turner syndrome have ovaries that don’t function properly. This often causes them to enter menopause prematurely.
Other chromosomal defects can cause early menopause, too. This includes pure gonadal dysgenesis, a variation on Turner syndrome. In this condition, the ovaries don’t function. Instead, periods and secondary sex characteristics must be brought about by hormone replacement therapy, usually during adolescence.
Women with Fragile X syndrome, or who are genetic carriers of the disease, may also have early menopause. This syndrome is passed down in families. Women should discuss genetic testing options with their doctor if they have premature menopause or if they have family members who had premature menopause.
Premature menopause can be a symptom of an autoimmune disease such as thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
In autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakes a part of the body for an invader and attacks it. Inflammation caused by some of these diseases can affect the ovaries. Menopause begins when the ovaries stop working.
Epilepsy is a seizure disorder that stems from the brain. Women with epilepsy are more likely to experience premature ovarian failure, which leads to menopause.
An older study from 2001 Trusted Source found that in a group of women with epilepsy, about 14 percent of those studied had premature menopause, as opposed to 1 percent of the general population.
What are the symptoms of early menopause?
Early menopause can begin as soon as you start having irregular periods or periods that are noticeably longer or shorter than your normal.
Other symptoms of early menopause include:
- Heavy bleeding
- Periods that last longer than a week
- Longer amount of time in between periods
In these cases, see your doctor to check for any other issues that might be causing these symptoms.
Other common symptoms of menopause include:
- Mood swings
- Changes in sexual feelings or desire
- Vaginal dryness
- Trouble sleeping
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Loss of bladder control
How is early menopause treated or managed?
Early menopause generally doesn’t require treatment. However, there are treatment options available to help manage the symptoms of menopause or conditions related to it. They can help you deal with changes in your body or lifestyle more easily.
Premature menopause, however, is often treated since it occurs at such an early age. This helps support your body with the hormones that would normally be made until you reach the age of natural menopause.