Menopause is a natural part of life for all women. But while the average woman in the US goes through menopause at age 51, some women become menopausal at a much younger age. An estimated 1%–4% of US women have premature menopause, which can happen any time before age 40.
Normally, the transition to menopause begins when the ovaries start to produce less estrogen and other hormones that regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle. In the years leading up to menopause (peri-menopause), fewer eggs are released, and plummeting hormone levels lead to symptoms such as irregular periods, hot flashes, sleep problems, vaginal dryness, and moodiness. Official menopause occurs when a woman’s periods have stopped for one full year.
Premature menopause may be due to natural causes, including problems with a woman’s ovaries or eggs that are sometimes related to chromosomal or genetic factors, or to conditions or diseases such as diabetes, lupus, thyroid disease, or rheumatoid arthritis. Premature menopause can also be caused by certain surgical and medical treatments. Menopause will set in within days after oophorectomy (surgery to remove the ovaries). Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation in the pelvic area can also lead to menopause, although it may reverse in some women once the treatments stop.
Early menopause increases a woman’s risk of cardiovascular disease and bone loss in the future. Getting plenty of calcium, vitamin D, and regular weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or stair climbing, can help build bone density. Hormone replacement is often prescribed to protect bones and alleviate other symptoms such as hot flashes.
Pregnancy is still possible in early menopause, but fertility is drastically reduced. This can be devastating to young women who are still planning on having children. While there are no treatments proven to restore fertility, some women successfully achieve pregnancy through egg donation. Others explore adoption or adjust their family goals to deal with unexpected infertility.
Going through menopause early can be a traumatic experience. Young women are often caught off guard by the physical symptoms of menopause and the sudden loss of fertility that comes with it.
If you are experiencing premature menopause, talk to your doctor about your options for having a child, and the psychological, emotional, and physical issues that you are facing. He or she can also refer you to counselors and fertility specialists that may be able to help.