Can You Delay Menopause?
Menopause is simply the time in your life when you naturally stop having menstrual periods. While the average age for menopause in the United States is 51, women can start going into menopause as early as 40 or as late as their late 60s.
Menopause happens when the ovaries stop making estrogen, the hormone that's responsible for controlling the menstrual cycle. While we know that some conditions and medical procedures, such as chemotherapy, can bring menopause early, less is known about delaying menopause.
Benefits of delayed menopause
The short answer to the question of delaying menopause is no. As of now, no technology exists to put off menopause or extend it to a later time. However, there have been experimental studies on the issue.
"There's been some research around implanting ovarian tissue in older women to continue some hormone production, but that's still more in the animal study basis," said Barb DePree M.D., an OB-GYN and a North American Menopause Society-certified menopause provider in Holland, Michigan.
However, there are benefits for women who go through menopause later in life.
"We have evidence to say that a later menopause does allow for an improved quality of life around cognitive health, bone health, cardiovascular health," DePree said. For these women, estrogen plays a protective role.
There have also been observations around lifestyle and age of menopause. For instance, smokers tend to go through earlier menopause. Similarly, women who have never been pregnant have a somewhat younger age of menopause compared with women who've had a pregnancy.
"There's some soft science around nutrition and diet with plant-based food as maybe being favorable for continued ovarian function," DePree added.
How to know when menopause is coming
Most women exhibit signs that menopause is coming, such as experiencing irregular periods or vaginal dryness. While it's not possible to predict when this might happen, women will likely notice changes in their menstrual cycles, mood and overall comfort. This period of time leading up to menstrual periods stopping completely is called perimenopause, or the menopausal transition. The first sign often is a change in the menstrual cycle.
"Our classic determinate for perimenopause is menstrual cycles becoming less predictable and more variable," DePree said.
About 85 percent of women experience hot flashes, added Mache Seibel, M.D., an OB-GYN and certified menopause practitioner in Boston. Women may also notice mood changes.
"The symptoms that are most common are anxiety and sadness; not clinical depression, but sadness," Seibel said.
Some women may find their cognitive function declines, in the form of brain fog or forgetting new information.
Tips for women going through menopause
No matter what age women are when they reach menopause, they're experiencing the start of a new chapter in life and a chance to reevaluate their overall health and lifestyle.
"For many women, it is a time they're willing to step back and reassess and adapt some better habits," DePree said.
This process may mean eating healthier or exercising more to decrease the risk of chronic diseases that may be more likely to develop around the time of menopause. Weight-bearing exercises can also promote healthy bones as you get older.
Currently, the best treatment for women going through menopause is estrogen replacement therapy. Despite many claims of the dangers of exogenous hormones, Seibel reassured that this is a myth based on previous faulty study designs.
"Hormones are, in fact, safe and effective for the majority of women," he said.
For most women, estrogen replacement therapy takes care of most of the symptoms experienced during menopause. However, some women should use caution.
"The one exception is the woman who has a history of breast cancer that has estrogen and/or progesterone receptors present, which is the majority of breast cancers in postmenopausal women," DePree said.
Menopause symptoms are treatable
You may not be able to delay menopause, but you can look out for certain clues to know when it's coming. While many women may be in the perimenopausal stage for a few years or more, you don't have to suffer.
Estrogen therapy is safe and effective for most women, and for women who can't receive this kind of treatment, many other safe medications are available.