Menopause isn’t something most of us like to think about. Sure, just like wrinkles and bladder problems, it’s going to happen eventually, but why worry about it any sooner than we have to? For most women that means forgetting about it until around 51, the average age of menopause. But for 1 percent of women the dreaded change comes much earlier—before age 40. The technical term for this early menopause is premature ovarian failure or insufficiency and it’s characterised by hot flashes, night sweats, ambiente ol sleep problems, sexual issues, vaginal dryness, pain during sex, pelvic floor disorders (urine, bowel leakage, pelvic organ prolapse), losing bone mass, and mood swings.
So what’s a girl to do? As a GP in Sydney, I am often asked by curious women whether there is a way to prevent early menopause. While there is no guaranteed way to prevent early menopause, there are a few steps that you can take to help with the process.
1. Adopt a healthy lifestyle
In general, living a healthy lifestyle can help ease the symptoms of menopause and prevent possible complications. Specifically, avoiding smoking is a strong factor in negative menopause symptoms like hot flashes and potentially causing early menopause. Minimising alcohol intake and avoiding recreational drug use are also good healthy habits to undertake.
Adopting a healthy diet and doing regular exercise is good for your overall health and could also have an impact on your menopause experience and symptoms.
2. Do weight-bearing exercise
Because menopause comes with a decrease in the levels of estrogen in your body, women can be more vulnerable to weight gain during this time, especially in your midsection. Increased belly fat can be associated with increased risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma and more.
To help prevent weight gain, I always recommend to my patients of menopausal age to start weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis and gardening. In addition to helping prevent weight gain, these types of weight-bearing exercise are helpful in improving bone health and reducing risk and symptoms of osteoporosis – another potential complication or health impact secondary to menopause.
While weight-bearing exercise can help reduce the health impacts of menopause, there is no impact on preventing or delaying menopause.
3. Get enough calcium and vitamin D
As mentioned, increased risk of osteoporosis is a potential complication or health impact of menopause. That’s because the decrease in estrogen levels and lack of menstrual periods can cause loss of bone mass. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D (but not so much sunlight that you’re increasing your risk of skin cancer) is crucial to maintaining bone density.
In addition to reducing your risk for osteoporosis, getting enough calcium and vitamin D also can help reduce your risk of heart disease, another potential health impact of menopause.
Calcium-rich foods include dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese, leafy green vegetables, broccoli and salmon. Vitamin D comes naturally with sunlight, but you can also take vitamin D or calcium supplements if you’re not getting enough naturally.
Similarly to weight-bearing exercises, calcium and vitamin D don’t have any impact on preventing or delaying menopause. However, they help reduce the health impacts of menopause like osteoporosis and heart disease.
4. Check your genetic links
Menopause is strongly genetically linked, so the age of your mother’s (or female relatives like your grandmother and maternal aunties) menopause can be a more accurate predictor of when you might also enter menopause.
Ask your female family members when they started to experience the signs and symptoms of menopause, such as:
- Irregular periods
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Sleep problems
- Mood changes
- Weight gain and slowed metabolism
- Thinning hair and dry skin
- Loss of breast fullness
The signs and symptoms of menopause will vary from person to person, but most women experience irregular periods before they end. In the months or years leading up to your last period, you might experience some or all of the above. Menopause is officially diagnosed after you’ve gone 12 months without a period. Remember to review with your GP to make sure there are no other reasons why your periods have started to become irregular or changing.
If you do experience any bleeding once you have entered menopause and have not had any vaginal bleeding for more than 12 months, it is important that you see your GP for an assessment.
5. Take note of certain health conditions
Some health conditions can bring on earlier menopause, such as smoking, chemotherapy and surgery to female reproductive organs like your ovaries. Cancer therapies like chemotherapy can induce menopause and cause symptoms like hot flashes, but not always stopping menstruation.
If you have surgery that removes your ovaries, you will no longer produce estrogen or progesterone and will be unable to regulate your menstrual cycle. This causes immediate menopause – you will no longer have periods and are likely to experience the other common symptoms like hot flashes. Because the hormonal changes happen abruptly rather than over the course of several years, the signs and symptoms can be severe.
While these health conditions can bring on early menopause, there is no guaranteed way to slow down or delay menopause.
It’s important to maintain an open conversation with your doctor either face-to-face or online via a digital health service about your current health conditions and lifestyle so they can help you adopt healthy habits to help streamline the menopause process. There are proven menopause treatments like HRT therapies that can help manage symptoms as well. Getting started earlier with a healthy lifestyle and being conscious of your genetic history and overall health are key to getting through menopause as smoothly as possible.
Dr Ai Nhi Bui is a registered GP and medical director at Rosemary Health, a digital service connecting Australians to quality healthcare online. With over 15 years of experience, Dr Bui has an interest in women’s health issues ranging from pregnancy care and sexual health to chronic conditions.
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