You may worry about menopause when you reach 50, but it might not be quite the monster you’re expecting. In your 40s, your perimenopausal hormones can be an absolutely wild ride, but things actually start to settle down in some respects in your 50s.
However, you do need to consider the hormonal and subsequent physical changes that are coming. Let's look at five common things that happen to women's bodies around this age, and what the experts say you can do to help minimize them.
Your brain function booms
Mindy Pelz, nutritionist and functional health practitioner, said that when a woman is in her 50s, her hormonal profile is drastically different than at any other time in her life.
"The tumultuous roller-coaster ride a woman has been on [in] perimenopausal years becomes more stable, improving some areas of her life and complicating other areas," Pelz said. "It takes years for a woman's brain to adjust to the hormonal changes that happened in her 40s, so by the time she hits her 50s, she usually feels emotionally more balanced."
Pelz explained that this is because the brain has had time to recalibrate to the lower level of sex hormones women experience past this age.
For many people, brain function has never been better than in their 50s. Here are a few things to consider:
- Crystallized intelligence is at a high—your ability to use learned knowledge and experience to solve problems. Skill, knowledge and expertise continue to grow as you age. Some studies show that crystallized intelligence doesn't peak until your 60s or 70s.
- Experimentalists peak in later life. A study that analyzed 31 Nobel Prize laureates found two types of creative genius. One is the experimentalist, who generally works it out as they go along. Because they build a bigger picture through trial and error over many years, their best work usually doesn't appear until in their 50s.
That being said, menopause can have a significant effect on your brain, including a decline in memory function compared to pre- and perimenopausal women (though in tests for memory function, women still consistently outperform men).
Postmenopause has an association with a decline in certain types of working memory. In order to maintain peak brain function, it's best to keep your mind and body active—diet can make a difference, too. Consider trying the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in seafood, grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Bones become more brittle
Meg Mill, Pharm.D., said that although menopause can vary significantly from woman to woman, most women will experience the transition around 50 years of age. Through this transition, estrogen drops, causing a loss of bone density, putting women older than 50 at greater risk for osteoporosis—a disorder that causes bones to become weak, brittle and at risk of breaking.
"In the low-estrogen state of menopause, there is more bone being broken down than being rebuilt, which causes bones to get weaker naturally," Mill added.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 54 million Americans are at risk of breaking a bone and should be concerned about bone health, and 1 in 2 women over 50 years old is likely to break a bone from osteoporosis.
"Eating a well-balanced diet can have a significant impact on reducing the risk of osteoporosis," Mill explained. "In addition to incorporating calcium-rich food, it is essential to get a good amount of vitamins D and K2 in your diet. Incorporating weight-bearing exercises can also help with your bone strength."
She also advises the following tips to help promote your bone strength:
- Focus on eating a well-balanced diet
- Get adequate exercise
- Avoid high alcohol consumption
- Avoid smoking
More wrinkles—and injuries
Collagen is a protein responsible for keeping your skin elastic and firm. As you age, your body starts to slow its production.
"Lack of collagen is one of the reasons your skin becomes more wrinkled as you age," Mill said. "Generally, women keep their skin's thickness until around age 50, then the skin starts to be drier, thinner, less elastic and wrinkles become more apparent."
The American Academy of Dermatology Association reports that women lose approximately 30 percent of your skin's collagen during the first five years of menopause. About 2 percent of collagen then declines every year for the following 20 years.
'Generally, women keep their skin's thickness until around age 50, then the skin starts to be drier, thinner, less elastic and wrinkles become more apparent.'
"If you are concerned about wrinkles and collagen loss, the most important thing you can do is protect yourself from the sun," Mill advised. "Wear a protective sunscreen or a hat when you are going to be in the sun for any significant amount of time. You can also try using collagen powder or drinking bone broth for an extra boost of collagen.”
"Another way women in their 50s can improve collagen production is to use red light therapy," Pelz said. Red light therapy increases collagen production and has been shown by at least one small study to improve skin laxity and reduce wrinkles.
Risk of heart disease increases
"Another problem linked to declining estrogen is an increased risk of heart disease, which can be exacerbated by being overweight," explained Aleece Fosnight, a board-certified physician assistant specializing in sexual medicine, women's health and urology, and medical advisor at Aeroflow Urology.
"[Women who experience] early menopause—especially due to oophorectomy or removal of the ovaries—are at increased risk of coronary heart disease than compared to age-matched premenopausal women," she added.
Additionally, Fosnight noted that the best screening tools for women include checking blood pressure and lipids. Women who smoke, have higher genetic risk factors, do less physical activity or have a history of preeclampsia should be checked more regularly.
Again, exercise and nutrition will play a big factor in reducing the risks of heart disease and in maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.
"Diets in higher saturated fats have long been thought to contribute to increased cholesterol levels—a Mediterranean diet is recommended to help limit saturated fats and increase antioxidants as a cardiovascular protectant," Fosnight said.
That pesky decrease in estrogen continues to wreak havoc in other ways. Estrogen helps modulate how the hypothalamus regulates body temperature. With a decline in estrogen levels, the hypothalamus has an exaggerated response to perceived changes in body temperature—it thinks you are too hot when you are not. Hence, hot flashes. This common symptom of menopausal transition can be uncomfortable and negatively affect your sleep.
"These hot flashes can be very debilitating and cause women to decrease production or limit social activities," Fosnight explained.
Fosnight noted that people often associate hot flashes with menopause. However, hot flashes or vasomotor symptoms are worse during the years leading up to the final menstrual period.
"Eighty percent of women will experience a hot flash at some point during the perimenopause transition—aged 40 to 50—and around 20 to 25 percent of women will continue to have hot flashes after age 50," Fosnight said.
Medical treatment options are available for hot flashes, including a host of prescription medications as well as hormone therapy. However, some women find success with lifestyle changes, like dressing in light layers and using personal fans.