Perimenopause … what is this exactly?

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“The menopause refers to that time in every woman’s life when her periods stop and her ovaries lose their reproductive function.” (“The Menopause” Factsheet, Women’s Health Concern)

The factsheet goes on to explain that this happens between the ages of 45 and 55.  Apparently, the average age in the UK is 51.

Some women may experience menopausal symptoms at a much earlier age, even in their 30s.  This is known as premature menopause or ‘premature ovarian insufficiency.’

As women get older we produce less oestrogen and therefore release fewer eggs, and this happens slowly over time, this period of slowing down, which can take several years, is called the peri-menopause and during this time our bodies can behave differently.  This is due to the gradually decreasing amounts of oestrogen we produce.  The actual word menopause refers to the time when women have not had a period for at least 12 months.

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It is sometimes difficult to tell whether symptoms women experience are because they are peri-menopausal, or whether they are having irregular periods for another reason, so it is best for women to visit their GP and get checked out. GPs should follow NICE guidelines (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) which are reviewed annually, to diagnose whether a woman is perimenopausal or not.  These guidelines also assist in the diagnosis of premature ovarian insufficiency or POI (menopause before the age of 40).  The Daisy Network is a charity supporting women with POI.

A women’s experiences when visiting their GPs, however, can be varied, and it is also more difficult for GPs to diagnose women who are taking hormonal treatments, for heavy periods for example.

This is why it is important for us to take responsibility for educating ourselves using accurate information from trusted sources so that when we do go to visit our GPs we know what questions to ask, because … ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’!

Women’s Health Concern, the patient arm of The British Menopause Society, has some excellent factsheets and information which are very easy to read and digest.

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We are told that it is extremely important for us to take particular care of our health at this stage of our lives and yet it is often quite a challenge for many of us to do so; perhaps because this is a time when we are often juggling many different family or work-related issues: needing to work, for example, whilst also being a carer for aging parents or grandchildren; or managing our own hormones whilst also trying to manage our adolescent children’s behaviour, due to their own hormonal changes! Consequently, we often neglect ourselves when we should be doing quite the opposite.

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Hot flushes, night sweats, sleeplessness, vaginal dryness (read Jane Lewis’s award-winning new book “Me & My Menopausal Vagina”) irritated skin, more frequent urinary incontinence and urinary tract infections, low mood and a reduced interest in sex.  All these symptoms can have a devastating effect on women’s lives. However, every woman’s experiences and symptoms can vary hugely, with a lot of women simply “sailing through it”.  Being educated, raising awareness in others and talking openly about menopause really does help.

It’s important not to suffer in silence, but instead to read up, find out, ask questions and talk to friends, family and health professionals.

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A helpful fact sheet can be downloaded from the Women’s Health Concern website here.

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