If you still have both of your ovaries as you move into your fifties, the chances are good that you’ll stop having menstrual periods altogether. When you’ve not had a period for twelve months, it’s official—you’ve experienced natural menopause. So you stop having periods—but what other changes take place as a result of this transition? And what lies ahead?
Hormones Take a Dive after Menopause
After menopause, estrogen and progesterone levels plummet. Although other parts of your body continue to produce some hormones, they cannot compensate fully for the loss of ovarian hormone production. Fewer vaginal secretions are produced when there is no estrogen, so your vaginal wall becomes less lubricated and flexible and more prone to tears and cracking. In fact, all of your skin tissue becomes thinner and less elastic, including the muscles that surround your urethra (the opening to the bladder). That’s how diminishing hormone levels can contribute to involuntary urine release through stress incontinence.
Joints lose cartilage with age and connective tissue becomes less flexible and resilient, making arthritis and other types of joint pain more common in aging women. Exercise and weight control are critical factors in maintaining healthy joints.
Lungs become less elastic as we hit our midfifties, which can contribute to shallower breathing and, therefore, less oxygen in our bloodstream. Get plenty of aerobic exercise to keep your lungs pumping. And, if you’re still smoking, quit now!
The brain loses mass and shrinks slightly with each passing year. As a result, women can face impaired cognitive functions as early as age seventy. Keep your body and mind active—participate in a regular aerobic exercise program, work crossword puzzles, learn to use the computer, visit with family and friends, read the newspaper, and travel. Life’s pleasures are also your best weapon in keeping your mind alert and agile.
Remember, if you use it, you don’t lose it. Digestion slows down as we reach our sixties, and food moves at a slower pace through our intestines. As a result, many postmenopausal women report problems with constipation. Eat plenty of whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetables, and drink plenty of water to combat this change in your digestive function (and, you guessed it, exercise).
These changes contribute to the challenges you face in maintaining your strength and health as you move through the postmenopausal years of your life. Though aging is inevitable, you exercise tremendous control over its effects. Menopause demands that you pay attention to your body, make decisions, and take actions that can protect and nurture it throughout the many years ahead. But menopause also can usher in a time of great freedom, personal exploration, and growth. How you manage the symptoms of perimenopause and the realities of aging that follow will determine your own postmenopausal experience.
Women approaching menopause today have much to be thankful for. At no previous time in history have we known more about both the biology and psychology of menopause and aging. We’ve never had more therapeutic options for taming the symptoms of menopause. We have an unprecedented understanding of diet and nutrition and the role they play in healthy aging. Women, though still struggling for equality in many areas, have trampled down many of the old barriers of sexual stereotypes and discrimination. Many women in their fifties are just entering the best years of their professional careers. Attitudes toward women and their roles and worth in society are changing, as are attitudes toward the experience of menopause and those women who are in it.But this may be a good time to rethink some of your most deep-rooted ideas.
Menopausal Women Are Angry, Bitter, and Old
You need only to look around you to see through this lie. First, the average age of menopause in the United States is fifty-one—hardly an age that anyone in today’s society (anyone over the age of twenty) would view as being old. And some women go through menopause—even natural menopause—in their forties. There’s a big difference between growing older and being “old.” And who has time to be hung up on chronology, anyway? It’s how old you feel that counts.
Beyond that, few women in this society have lives that grind to a halt when their reproductive system slows down. Women’s lives aren’t defined by the number of children sitting around their supper table each evening, and the empty nest more often than not evolves into a house full of other interests and opportunities. Many women are just entering the most productive and lucrative stages of their careers during and after menopause, and find that their career satisfaction actually increases at this time. Menopause can be a time of unprecedented self-confidence, freedom, and financial liberation for women. Anger and bitterness aren’t a natural and inevitable side effect of the transition.
Menopause is a time of reflection, though. For many women, menopause is a time of introspection and personal assessment. Some women have spent the majority of their lives preceding menopause caring for other people and interests—children, spouses or partners, parents, and careers. If these women turn more attention inward, their behavior might on the surface make them appear to be withdrawn or even angry. Menopause is a time of change, and for many women that change extends deeper than the rhythm of their ovarian cycles. Blanket assumptions about the feelings and attitudes of menopausal women—or women of any age, for that matter—are never accurate.