While menopause can affect each individual woman in a unique way, there are some commonalities that you should be prepared for. The average age for menopause to strike is fifty-one, however, it may start when a woman is still in her early forties. Menopause is not only a common condition, but it is expected at some point during a woman’s lifetime, so it is important to understand what happens to the body and what symptoms to expect during this time.

Before the onset of true menopause, women may go through a stage called perimenopause. This is a time frame of months or years leading up to menopause that is characterized by irregular periods. During this time, it is not uncommon to miss a period (or several periods) and then have it return the next month and then continue regularly for several months. During perimenopause, periods may also become shorter, and there may also be less time in between periods. Despite these irregularities associated with perimenopause, pregnancy is still possible during this time.

In addition to irregular periods, there are several other symptoms associated with perimenopause such as vaginal dryness, dry skin, chills, hot flashes, night sweats, sleep problems, erratic moods, weight gain, thinning hair, and changes in breast shape. However, it is important to remember that each woman is different. While one woman may exhibit one set of symptoms which may be more severe, another woman may exhibit another set of symptoms entirely.

True menopause is marked by having gone a full twelve months without a monthly period. After true menopause has set in, it is no longer “normal” to experience vaginal bleeding. If this occurs, it is important to discuss this symptom with your doctor. As long as you continue to have regular checkups with your gynecologist, your doctor can assess if you need any preventative care to help manage symptoms associated with perimenopause.

Many women wonder what causes menopause. As a woman ages, there is a natural decline of estrogen and progesterone, the hormones that regulate the monthly cycle. Eventually, this causes periods to become irregular and for the ovaries to stop producing eggs. Additionally, menopause can occur after having a hysterectomy or after receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Although rare, some women experience an early-onset of menopause before the age of forty. This only occurs in about one percent of women, and it occurs when the ovaries produce an insufficient amount of reproductive hormones. Although the cause of premature menopause is still unknown, it may have something to do with genetics or even autoimmune diseases.

Even though menopause is a normal process, there are complications associated with it that can affect the heart and bones. Women who produce fewer reproductive hormones are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and incontinence. Some women also experience a loss in libido and weight gain. Continue regular visits with your doctor to reduce the risks associated with menopause and to receive preventative treatments.