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Are you a woman in your twenties or thirties? The menopause is bound to sound like a scary process that will eventually strike you somewhere in your late forties or early fifties.

The average American woman enters the menopause at age 51, and that's quite a way away! Don't be fooled, though. Some women enter the menopause much earlier than that. A premature menopause can be the result of a variety of factors. Could it happen to you? 

What is the menopause?

Before we can take a closer look at what premature menopause is, we need to define menopause in general. The menopause is the end of a woman's reproductive life. Her periods will permanently cease, as will ovulation, but what actually causes the menopause? It's that the ovaries stop producing estrogen, the "female hormone" that plays such a large role in directing the menstrual cycle. While some women tend to think of the menopause as a single event, it is actually a process that can last months or years. A woman will officially enter the menopause once she has not had a period for a full 12 months. This obviously doesn't apply if the lack of periods can be explained by some other cause, such as pregnancy followed by breastfeeding or the use of certain hormonal contraceptives that can interfere with menstrual cycles.

Why premature menopause?

We can speak of an early or premature menopause if a woman enters the menopause before age 40. It can be caused by medical events such as cancer treatment, but also by genetic or environmental factors. Women who have a family history of premature menopause are much more likely to go through the menopause early themselves. If your mother enter the menopause prematurely, you are more than six times as likely as other women to be faced with the same issue. Knowing of a family history of premature menopause is an excellent reason to plan to start a family earlier on in life.

Life-style factors also play a significant role. Smoking causes all kinds of nasty health problems, but a premature menopause can be one of them. This is because smoking depletes your estrogen stores. Similarly, underweight women have smaller estrogen reserves and can enter the menopause sooner. Medical factors are another cause of premature menopause. They include certain autoimmune conditions, chemotherapy treatment for cancer, or the surgical removal of the ovaries.

While women who were diagnosed with diseases that can trigger a premature menopause either because of the disease itself or because of the treatment might know what they can expect, women who naturally enter a premature menopause may not realize what is going on. Why should the menopause be on your radar, after all? You are much more likely to explain your symptoms away, thinking you're under stress perhaps.

Symptoms of the menopause

The symptoms you can expect from a premature menopause are the same symptoms older women who go through the same process have unless surgery puts an abrupt end to your reproductive life in which case things will be slightly different. I'd like to encourage women who recognize these symptoms to make an appointment with their doctor. It is possible that you are not going through the menopause and that your symptoms can be explained by other conditions including thyroid disorders but you will definitely want to know what is happening to you. Menopause symptoms include:

  • Irregular periods, particularly if you previously had regular cycles
  • Changes in your menstrual flow lighter or heavier
  • Bigger spaces between two periods
  • Hot flashes
  • Night sweats
  • Nausea
  • Weight gain
  • Pain in your joints, muscles and tendons
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Dry skin
  • Insomnia
  • Being forgetful
  • Terrible mood swings, not unlike PMS

Finally, women who are trying to conceive may notice that they are simply not getting pregnant. Those who use regular ovulation tests may find that they rarely or never get a positive test result.

Diagnosis and beyond

Once you talk to your family doctor or gynecologist about your symptoms, you can expect some tests. Your doctor will ask you about your family history and will conduct a blood test and a physical examination. These steps may give your doctor important clues. The test that can offer you a definite diagnosis is a test for FSH, follicle stimulating hormone. Once you have been diagnosed with a premature menopause, you can decide to manage your symptoms naturally or with Hormone Replacement Therapy or herbal supplements. Women who go through the menopause early have a higher risk of certain health conditions including osteoporosis (brittle bones), so you will want to ask your healthcare provider how to counteract these risks.

You may believe that all your eggs are gone once you have entered the menopause, but that is not strictly true. The ovarian reserves of a woman who has entered the menopause are greatly reduced, but you might still have egg cells that are in good condition left after you naturally experience an early menopause. Combined with IVF, this may enable you to have children. Egg donation and embryo adoption are two alternatives women who would like to carry a pregnancy may look into.

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