Menopause is a major milestone in a woman's life, but not every woman reaches it at the same age. American women generally enter menopause between ages 45 and 55--the average age is 51--but it's not unheard of for some women to experience "the change" in their 30s or their 60s. That's a wide range, so it helps to know what signs to look for when the time comes, says Lina Wong, DO, a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group.
"Women typically are considered menopausal if they've gone without a menstrual cycle for 12 consecutive months," Dr. Wong says. "But the first stage of menopause, called perimenopause, can start well before that--and so can the symptoms."
One early, telltale symptom of perimenopause is an irregular menstrual cycle. "Because women's bodies stop producing enough estrogen and progesterone, their periods lessen in frequency, perhaps occurring every couple of months or so," Dr. Wong says. "It's important to note that women can still get pregnant during this time."
Another major sign is the hot flash. This rush of heat in the body can last for a few minutes at a time, can occur multiple times a day and cause perspiration, an increased heart rate and night sweats. Other signs include mood swings, sleep problems, dry skin as well as vaginal dryness, weight gain and thinning hair.
"Just as women can begin menopause at different ages, they can experience symptoms in different ways," Dr. Wong says. "Some women may not have many physical issues, while others may have some that last for years. Other women may also enter menopause early--for instance, if they have a family history of early menopause, they smoke or had a hysterectomy."
If you are experiencing irregular periods or other symptoms that are affecting your daily life, talk with your doctor.
"There's no one-size-fits-all test to determine if you've started the perimenopause phase, but your physician can take into consideration your symptoms, health history, age and other factors as well as possibly check your hormone levels," says Dr. Wong. "A visit with your doctor can help rule out other possible medical conditions--for instance, hypothyroidism can cause similar symptoms--or, if your doctor determines you are perimenopausal, you can get guidance on hormone therapy options or assistance with any symptoms that are bothering you, such as changes in mood or hot flashes."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.