“It changed who I felt I was.” Women tell of devastation at early diagnosis of menopause

For Mary*, learning that she had entered menopause much earlier than expected was a shock…

It kinda felt like I went from 39 […] instead of being 40, I was almost 80. So I kind of skipped 40.

About 10% women – many of whom to believe they have the prospect of having children ahead of them – they are suddenly told that they are at the end of their fertile life and that they are at greater risk of diseases normally associated with middle age.

During our work with women and research, hundreds of women have shared their experiences of early menopause. They provide insight into how the physical changes have affected their sense of self and their relationships.

Read more: Making sense of menopausal hormone therapy means understanding the benefits as well as the risks

What is premature menopause?

Menopause refers to the time in a woman’s life when the ovaries stop producing eggs, periods stop, and estrogen levels drop dramatically.

The usual age of menopause, defined as 12 months without periods, is around 51 years old. Early menopause occurs before age 45. Premature menopause or premature ovarian failure (POI), occurs before age 40.

Early menopause can occur without warning and the causes may never be known; although a family history of POI, autoimmune disease, smoking, early development, and social factors are risk factors. It can also result from medical care such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgical removal of both ovaries. With the exception of women whose ovaries have been removed, it is very difficult to predict who will experience early menopause.

Early and premature menopause occurs in one in ten women. It can run in families.

Hot flashes, night sweats and the rest

Symptoms of early menopause can be similar to those associated with usual menopause (hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, vaginal dryness, trouble sleeping, sexual problems, fatigue, joint pain, and brain discoloration), but occur in much younger women and may be more severe. The problem is that no one expects young women to show symptoms of menopause.

Some women may have no symptoms of menopause and only have their periods stop without warning. Others find they are unable to become pregnant. Sonia* remembers:

Around 35, 36 I started skipping periods […] I just thought it was stress and overwork and that sort of thing. But then the intervals between periods got longer and longer and I started having night sweats. And I was worried then, not because I thought I was going through menopause – it didn’t cross my mind.

Although we think of estrogen as a reproductive hormone, it also plays an important role role in brain function, especially memory. Women who experience early menopause often report frustration at not functioning mentally as they once did, and also find mood swings difficult to deal with. The cause of early menopause (such as chemotherapy) and the symptoms experienced (such as trouble sleeping) can also impact thinking and mood.

Read more: ‘Brain fog’ during menopause is real – it can disrupt women’s labor and spark fears of dementia

feel less than sexy

Early menopause can affect sexual function in several ways. Vaginal dryness can cause pain during intercourse. Women often say they lose sex drive, which can put a strain on intimate relationships.

Cathy told us she wanted to be left alone:

It changed who I felt I was […] It’s hard to be sexy when you’re grumpy […] Think of yourself as a sexual being [is difficult] when you have hot flashes every hour and you say to yourself: “I don’t want anyone near me”. All I want is to feel cool.

Hot flashes and mood swings can worry women.

Losing a future family

For many women going through early menopause, the sudden loss of fertility can be devastating. Jenni recalls going through menopause at an age when many of her classmates were becoming parents:

Watching the joy my friends felt when they got pregnant and gave birth was like a special hell. I was so happy for them, but I had to distance myself because it was too hard.

The women describe feelings of shock and trauma after learning they were infertile. They grieve for the children they hoped to have.

Rarely, women with spontaneous POI will conceive. For the majority, pregnancy is only possible with assisted reproductive technology using a donor egg or embryo.

Incurable but symptoms can be treated

There is no cure for early menopause and no way to restore egg production. Instead, treatment focuses on managing symptoms and the increased risk of BONE and heart disease after menopause.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is usually advised until the age of usual menopause to manage symptoms and reduce your risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. The risks of taking HRT seen in older women do not necessarily apply to young women. Consult your doctor about the best HRT for you.

If you haven’t had a period for 4-6 months (and you’re not pregnant or taking treatment that stops your period), you should see your doctor to see if you may be in pain. early menopause or POI. You can also find doctors who have a special interest in women’s health and menopause.

We have developed the Apply for Early Menopause website and app to provide accurate information and a discussion forum for women to share their experiences and get expert advice.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality reasons

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