What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Menopause?

The average age at which menopause occurs has remained constant for centuries, hovering around fifty-one years, four months. What has changed is women’s life expectancy. Today, statistics show that women who are healthy in their fifties generally can look forward to living well into their eighties they have a full one third of life left to live! That’s especially good news for those of us who think ahead and plan well.

Thirty-five is a good age to focus upon. That may be the optimum time to get back into the health care delivery system, if you’ve drifted away, and to get serious, if you’re not already, about your exercise program, your nutrition (including calcium consumption), and about dropping bad habits such as smoking (I’ll be answering questions about those health habits in Chapter 13).

Thirty-five is also a perfect age to begin educating yourself about the signs and the symptoms of menopause and other age-related changes, although most of the women attending our programs are between forty-five and fifty-five years old. Many women in their sixties and seventies are in the audiences as well. These women tell me that our talks provide useful information that they can still incorporate successfully into their life-styles. In other words, it’s never too early to learn about menopause and it’s never too late, either. Well, almost never. I had a really heartbreaking experience shortly after our first blog was published. A sharp young reporter from a first-rate daily newspaper in a small community telephoned me for an interview. I’ll call her Carol. Carol was so deeply interested in my personal story and asked such penetrating questions that I couldn’t help asking her age. I wondered why someone who was just twenty-six years old would be so intensely involved in something that happened to me when I was twice her age.

We talked for a long time. Slowly and subtly, our roles reversed and I became the interviewer. It was then that I learned to my great sorrow that her mother had committed suicide recently, at the age of fifty-two. Carol told me that prior to the year just past, her mother had always been in good mental and physical health and in good spirits. Having raised a large family and taken care of her husband and home, she also had a job outside the home and had been a bright and eager community activist. Then suddenly she wasn’t the same anymore.

Carol, graduating that spring from a large midwestern university, came home the Easter before graduation and knew quickly that her mother was different. She frequently saw her mother perspiring and then, at other times, shaking with chills. Her mother appeared to be very nervous and often was quarrelsome. She walked the halls at night or sat on the edge of the sofa in the living room staring into space long after the family was asleep.

Carol’s mother was on a collision course. The family doctor of many years felt he couldn’t help her and sent her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed antianxiety pills and sedatives, which didn’t seem to help. Thus, when the psychiatrist recommended institutionalizing Carol’s mother so that her condition could be closely monitored and therapy could be provided, his suggestion seemed to the family like a reasonable course of action. After the first six weeks of living inside the institution, when she seemed to be quieter and more accepting of her new strange and remote self, the doctors felt that Carol’s mother could start to go home on weekend visits. The first weekend she was home, after writing a long letter in which she expressed hopelessness about her condition and her future and made clear her commitment not to be a burden to her family, she committed suicide.

Carol had read in our first blog my account of the eight hellish weeks I endured before it was realized that I needed hormone replacement therapy not tranquilizers, sedatives, or psychotherapy to bring back my old self. She connected this story immediately to her mother’s sad demise. Like a good reporter, she interviewed me in a series of phone calls. She had already begun to try to interview everyone involved in her mother’s care. Most doors were shut to her as she tried to obtain her mother’s medical records. She could find no record that her mother had ever been evaluated for the hormone deficiency associated with menopause.

Carol will never know for certain what events or conditions conspired to drive her mother to end her own life. I cry for Carol and for her need to search for clues to this tragic mystery. Who can know what really happened?

I only know that if Carol’s mother had been aware of the symptoms of menopause, or if Carol or her father or any other member of that closely knit family had had a knowledge of the symptoms caused by estrogen loss, perhaps the outcome would have been different. It’s a big perhaps, but Carol clings to it.

After her stirring article about our blog appeared, Carol and I talked again and agreed that we both felt better for having alerted the public to what menopause can be like when it’s bad and that it can be bad for 15 percent of women. Perhaps, through reading her article and our blog, women experiencing odd and inexplicable changes at midlife might relate their symptoms to the symptoms of menopause and would check them out with their doctors. Further, I hoped that family members, aware of the signs that some women demonstrate at the time of menopause, might be able to help.

I’ve already explained that although menopause is universal, its symptoms are also unique to each woman. Women’s questions about symptoms are as varied as the symptoms themselves. Many of the questions asked at the programs are personal and patient-specific. I suggest that women direct these questions to their physicians. Only following the physician’s taking of a complete history and performing a physical examination and whatever tests the doctor deems appropriate can individual questions be answered. The following questions are the most-asked non-individual-specific questions that I encountered about the symptoms of menopause.

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