Image: Samantha Jones experienced menopause in Sex and the City 2.
Even if you’ve never experienced menopause first-hand, you’re probably familiar with what it is and how it can affect your body.
You probably also assume you won’t have to think too much about it until you’re approaching 50. However, that’s not necessarily the case. The hormonal changes that precede menopause can affect women as early as in their late thirties, and the effects can be equally significant and long-lasting.
This transitioning stage is known as perimenopause, and it generally takes place over a period of four to six years, starting around age 45— although this changes from one woman to the next.
Perimenopause is caused by changing hormone levels in the body, particularly oestrogen, due to the ovaries beginning to run out of eggs. For the majority of women, ovulation doesn’t suddenly stop — this winding-down process can begin years before menopause. However, around eight per cent of women have menopause induced through surgical removal of the ovaries or as a result of cancer treatment.
According to Dr Mandy Deeks, Head of Translation, Education & Communication at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, many women aren't familiar with perimenopause because of the way we define menopause itself.
"There's a lot of discussion about 'the menopausal woman' who's in her 50s with the hot flushes ... Women talk about menopause as it relates to mid-life a lot of the time, but we know it doesn't always occur in mid-life," Dr Deeks says.
"No-one really thinks about what happens before. Menopause is defined as it's been 12 months since your final menstrual period ... and therefore you don't know you've been through menopause until it's been 12 months."
A characteristic symptom of perimenopause is changes to your period pattern. Your cycle can become irregular, more painful, lighter or heavier, and periods might last longer or finish earlier than you're used to. (Post continues after gallery.)
However, perimenopause is also associated with the gradual onset of menopause symptoms, which can include fatigue, hot flashes, breast tenderness, vaginal dryness (try Verona Intimate Fresh Daily Wash or Sensitive Daily Wash, $9.95), headaches, mood swings, incontinence and trouble sleeping. It can also cause women to experience difficulty conceiving and a decreased libido; research indicates up to 15 per cent of perimenopausal women report having no sexual desire.
As with almost anything, no two women experience menopause or perimenopause the same way. You might not even realise you've been through perimenopause because the symptoms haven't been obvious until you consider them in hindsight.
"It might be that a woman has an early or a premature menopause, or it might be through surgery. It might be that suddenly she wakes up and realises, 'I haven't had a period in a long time' and she hadn't had any symptoms that would tell her she was heading to menopause. Another women might suffer extreme hot flushes, night sweats, that kind of thing," Dr Deeks says.