For most people, the subject of menopause isn’t typically associated with allure or glamour. But with around 13 million people expected to be currently peri or menopausal in the UK, (which is equivalent to a third of the entire UK female population), why is it that such a vast proportion of our population has to feel less-than-great about something as natural as menopause?
The average age of menopause in the UK is 51, with approximately 90% of people born with ovaries experiencing their last period between the ages of 45 and 55. However whilst the majority of society faces the stark reality of menopause in their later years, 1-2% will reach menopause before the age of 40. This means statistically speaking that as a person in your 30s, you are likely to have at least one friend or colleague of the same age who is already menopausal.
But with menopause coming around too quickly no matter what your age, the symptoms of menopause often appear much earlier during a phase known as perimenopause. This transitional period, which can last several years, can start as early as your mid to late 30s, and is marked by symptoms such as anxiety, poor sleep quality, migraine episodes, and breast tenderness, to name but a few.
Regrettably, this crucial information is often not communicated to young people, resulting in a widespread knowledge gap. This needs to change. We learn about the onset of our reproductive years in primary school, but yet we jump to the other end of the spectrum — the cessation of our reproductive years — and it is glaringly absent from our education.
Whilst small steps have been made, including introducing menopause education into secondary schools, there is still more to be done and more conversations to be had. Yes, equipping young minds fosters empathy and understanding, but more work remains to ensure comprehensive awareness and support.
However, understanding the signs and early indicators of menopause in your 30s can lead to better preparation and management. Tracking menstrual cycles, for instance, can provide valuable insight into the onset of perimenopause. Symptoms such as mood fluctuations, changes in menstrual regularity, or hot sweats or flushes can serve as initial clues.
But it’s important to remember that symptoms of perimenopause can also vary widely and include, but are not limited to, joint pain, new or worsening migraine episodes, fatigue, hair and skin changes, mood alterations, libido decline, bladder changes, and vaginal and vulval discomfort (to name a few).
To minimise these future menopause symptoms, lifestyle modifications can be incredibly beneficial.
Embracing a predominantly Mediterranean-style diet, exercising regularly and prioritising sleep are just a few suggestions. Cutting down on alcohol and giving up smoking can help alleviate menopause symptoms while simultaneously reducing the risk of other diseases, a win-win!
But despite these facts, misconceptions about menopause STILL persist. Many believe menopause only happens in your fifties or that symptoms can’t occur while still menstruating – wrong.
It is these misconceptions that contribute to a societal narrative that views menopause as merely something “to get through”. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT), for example, is often mistakenly considered dangerous, when in fact, it can be a very effective and safe treatment for many experiencing menopausal symptoms.
Addressing this information gap requires concerted efforts from everyone, from your day-to-day conversations with friends, work colleagues or family members to your GP. We need to initiate and normalise conversations about menopause.
Young women seeking to prepare for menopause can turn to resources such as the Menopause Support group. Their brilliant guide provides comprehensive information to understand and navigate this transition.
So what did I wish I knew at 30 before I embarked upon this once in a lifetime journey? Well, I wish I had realised in my thirties how much power there is in recognising and accepting the signs of menopause (it’s true)!
For some, not acknowledging these symptoms can cause life to lose its balance. It can have a knock on effect with your future health, your career or job due to unrecognised symptoms and even relationships with those closest to you. But by equipping ourselves with the knowledge and identifying these signs early and welcoming them, we can hold the reins of our journey. Being informed and empowered helps us to keep a steady helm, allowing us to not only navigate but truly appreciate the enriching voyage of menopause. It’s a testament to our strength and resilience, reminding us of our ability to adapt, grow, and find joy in each stage of life.
By recognising the symptoms, affirming women’s experiences, and sharing our knowledge, we can set the stage for a positive, empowering journey through this remarkable life transition.
Navigating menopause isn’t just an individual task, but a shared responsibility for all of us in society. Let’s turn it into a topic that’s discussed with warmth, understanding, and shared solidarity. It’s time we gave menopause the recognition it deserves.
Dr. Sarah Ball MBChB, MRCGP, DCH, DRCOG, DFFP is a Menopause Doctor at Health in Menopause.