Causes of Early Menopause

Menopause is a condition that all women go through, usually in their late 40s or early 50s.  Sometimes, however, women experience menopause much earlier than is expected.  They may go through menopause before the age of 45, which is called early menopause; or, they may experience menopause even earlier, before the age of 40.  This is called premature menopause or premature ovarian failure.

What Is Menopause?

To start with the basics, menopause is defined as the complete ending of your period.  Typically, this occurs between the ages of 47 and 53.  The two key factors that determine if you've really experienced menopause are the length of time you've been without a period and your level of follicle stimulating hormones.  You'll generally be told that you are experiencing menopause if you've missed approximately 12 consecutive periods (or at least six, depending on your age), when you still have your ovaries and if your hormone levels indicate that you are at a post-menopause level.

What Causes Early Menopause?

Early menopause can be brought on in a number of different ways.  Unfortunately, if you do experience early menopause, there is no way to reverse this situation.  However, you can get help for the uncomfortable symptoms and can begin to deal, emotionally, with these unexpected changes.  Here is a brief explanation of the various factors that can bring on early menopause.

1.    Premature Ovarian Failure (POF) - This is a condition in which your period stops before the age of 40.  You will usually experience the symptoms of menopause, including the loss of your period.  A hormone test will also show that you have post-menopausal levels of your follicle stimulating hormones.  The unusual thing about this condition is that it doesn't necessarily mean that your ovaries are out of eggs.  Sometimes, the interruption of your period is because your body is responding to the signals it's being sent to ovulate.  It's possible, even with POF to still get your period periodically.  This is one of the main distinctions between POF and normal menopause.  In addition, studies have shown that approximately 25% of women with POF still have ovulate from time to time and that 8-10% of women with POF can even get pregnant!

2.    Early Menopause Due to Surgery or Cancer Treatment - Sometimes menopause can be brought on by outside forces that cause your body to change. If you are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, this can cause your ovaries to stop working properly and can induce early menopause.  Similarly, if you need to have your ovaries removed, you'll obviously no longer produce ovarian hormones.  Similarly, if you have another type of pelvic surgery such as a hysterectomy, it may interfere with the blood flowing to the ovaries and cause ovarian failure.

3.    Perimenopause - This is defined as a situation where you are having menopausal symptoms at an early age, but are still ovulating and have normal hormone levels.  This period of time is one that indicates that you are leading up to menopause.  You will usually continue to ovulate, but may start to feel some of the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and more.  Depending on your situation and your symptoms, your doctor may put you on a low-dose birth control pill or a low-dose HRT.  These will often help to mediate the symptoms, although they can't reverse the menopause process.

4.    Diminished Ovarian Reserve - This is a situation, usually before the age of 40, where you are still getting your period and your hormone levels aren't showing post-menopausal signs, but you've started to experience menopause symptoms.  If you experience these issues before the age of 40, it's usually a precursor to premature ovarian failure and is referred to as diminished ovarian reserve.

Getting Advice

Should you start to exhibit inconsistent periods, or to show symptoms of menopause, it's certainly important to see a doctor.  Most women do not expect to worry about, or think about, menopause until their late 40s or early 50s.  It can be very traumatic and unsettling to experience these situations at a younger age.  It does not, however, mean that you are getting old before your time or that something is wrong with you.  It is important to have an evaluation done, particularly if you are experiencing uncomfortable symptoms, so that you can continue to lead your normal life and to function as you were.



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