The average age when a woman has her last menstrual period is 51 years. Menopause is defined as the absence of menstrual periods for 1 year. The years leading up to menopause often are called perimenopause. This is a time of gradual decrease in estrogen levels and changes in the menstrual cycle. In general, perimenopause lasts from age 45 years to age 55 years, although the timing varies among women. Changing estrogen levels can bring on symptoms such as hot flashes and sleep changes. After menopause, the lack of estrogen can increase the risk of osteoporosis (bone loss). To manage the symptoms of perimenopause, some women may choose to take hormone therapy.
During your childbearing years, monthly changes in the production of two hormones—estrogen and progesterone — bring about your menstrual period. Estrogen has other effects in the body. It helps keep bones strong and helps protect against heart disease. It also keeps the tissues of the vagina moist and elastic. Estrogen and progesterone are made by the ovaries. The ovaries also make other hormones, including the male hormone testosterone. Estrogen causes the endometrium— the lining of the uterus—to grow and thicken to prepare the uterus for pregnancy.
In the middle of the cycle, one of the ovaries releases an egg (ovulation). Following ovulation, levels of progesterone begin to increase. If the woman does not become pregnant, estrogen and progesterone levels decrease. The decrease in pro-gesterone triggers menstruation, or shedding of the lining.
During perimenopause, the ovaries begin to make less estrogen. Some months your ovaries may release an egg; some months they may not. As a result of these changes, your period may become irregular. The number of days between periods may increase or decrease. Your periods may become shorter or longer. Menstrual bleeding may get heavier or lighter. You may begin to skip periods. The event known as menopause happens when you have not had a menstrual period for 1 year.
Hormone therapy means to take estrogen, and in many cases, progestin as well. Progestin is a form of progesterone. Estrogen taken by itself increases the risk of cancer of the endometrium. Taking progestin along with estrogen reduces this risk. If you do not have a uterus (you have had a hysterectomy) , estrogen generally is given alone, without progestin. Estrogen plus progestin is sometimes called “combined hormone therapy.” Estrogen-only therapy is sometimes called “estrogen therapy.”
Hormone therapy can be either “systemic” or “local.” These two terms describe where and how the hormones act in the body. With systemic therapy, the hormones are released into your bloodstream and travel to the organs and tissues where it isneeded. Systemic forms of estrogen include pills, skin patches, gels and sprays that are applied to the skin, and vaginal rings. If progestin is prescribed, it can be given as a pill, patch, gel, or in an intrauterine device. Progestin can be taken separately or combined with estrogen in the same pill or in a patch.
For women taking estrogen-only therapy, estrogen may be taken every day or every few days, depending on the way the estrogen is given.
For women taking combined therapy, there are two types of regimens:
1. Cyclic therapy: Estrogen is taken every day, and progestin is added for several days each month or for several days every 3-4 months.
2. Continuous therapy: Both estrogen and progestin are taken every day.
It is common to have irregular bleeding the first few months of combined therapy use, but within 1 year, bleeding usually stops for most women.
If you are postmenopausal, it is important to tell your health care provider if you have bleeding. Althoughit is often an expected side effect of hormone therapy, it also can be a sign of endometrial cancer. All bleeding after menopause should be evaluated.
Women with vaginal dryness and thinning of the vaginal lining may be prescribed “local” estrogen therapy in the form of a low-dose vaginal ring, vaginal tablet, or vaginal cream. These forms release small doses of estrogen into the vaginal tissue.The estrogen helps restore the natural thickness and elasticity to the vaginal lining while relieving dryness and irritation.
The tablets and creams usually are used daily at first, then twice or three times a week. The ring is inserted and left in the vagina for 3 months, after which it is removed and a new ring is inserted. You do not have to remove the ring for sexual intercourse.
The signs and symptoms that many women experience during peri-menopause are caused by gradually decreasing levels of estrogen. You may have only a few symptoms, or you may have many. Symptoms may be mild, or they may be severe but hormone therapy can help.
About 75% of all women have hot flashes during perimenopause. A hot flash is a sudden feeling of heat that spreads over the face and body. The skin may redden like a blush. You also may break out in a sweat. Hot flashes may last from a few seconds to several minutes or longer. They can occur a few times a month or several times a day, depending on the woman. Hot flashes can happen anytime—day or night. When they occur at night, they can disrupt your sleep. Hot flashes at night also can cause night sweats.
Loss of estrogen causes changes in the vagina. The lining may become thin and dry. These changes can cause pain during sexual intercourse. They also can make the vagina more prone to infection, which can cause burning and itching.
The urinary tract also changes with age. The urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder during urination) can be- come dry, inflamed, or irritated. In some women, this irritation may lead to frequent urination. Women may have an increased risk of bladder infection after menopause.
Hormone therapy has many benefits, but it also has risks. Beginning in 2002, findings of the Women’s Health Initiative, a study by the National Institutes of Health, raised concerns about the risks of both estrogen-only and combined hormone therapy for postmenopausal women. In the years since this study, efforts to clarify the findings have been ongoing. The following sections summarize the latest information about hormone therapy.
Both types of hormone therapy (combined and estrogen-only) remain the most effective treatment for the symptoms of peri –menopause.
Both types of hormone therapy help prevent the rapid bone loss that occurs early in menopause. It also has been shown to prevent hip and spine fractures.
Low doses of local estrogen help relieve vaginal dryness and irritation.
Estrogen-only therapy (but not combined therapy) appears to reduce the risk of developing, or dying from, breast cancer.
Combined hormone therapy (specifically, a combination of oral conjugated equine estrogen and a progestin called medroxy - progesterone acetate) is associated with an increased risk of stroke, breast cancer, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), gallbladder disease, and urinary incontinence. It does not prevent heart disease.
Estrogen-only therapy increases the risk of endometrial cancer.
Estrogen-only therapy is associated with an increased risk of stroke, gallbladder disease, DVT, and urinary incontinence.
Researchers are continuing to look closely at the risks and benefits of hormone therapy. The average age of the women who were studied in the WHI was 64 years, which is well past the age when menopause starts. Most women who take hormone therapy are in their 40s and 50s and are experiencing perimenopausal symptoms. Research is underway to study whether the risks associated with hormone therapy are related to when therapy is started, how long it is used, and how the therapy is given.
Menopause is defined as the absence of menstrual periods for 1 year. The average age of menopause is 51 years, but the normal range is 45 years to 55 years.
The years leading up to this point are called perimenopause. This term means "around menopause." This phase can last for up to 10 years. During perimenopause, shifts in hormone levels can affect ovulation and cause changes in the menstrual cycle.
During a normal menstrual cycle, the levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone increase and decrease in a regular pattern. Ovulation occurs in the middle of the cycle, and menstruation occurs about 2 weeks later. During perimenopause, hormone levels may not follow this regular pattern. As a result, you may have irregular bleeding or spotting. Some months, your period may be longer and heavier. Other months, it may be shorter and lighter. The number of days between periods may increase or decrease. You may begin to skip periods.
Any bleeding after menopause is abnormal and should be reported to your health care provider. Although the menstrual period may become irregular during perimenopause, you should be alert for abnormal bleeding, which can signal a problem not related to perimenopause. A good rule to follow is to tell your health care provider if you notice any of the following changes in your monthly cycle:
To diagnose the cause of abnormal perimenopausal bleeding or bleeding after menopause, your health care provider will review your personal and family health history. You will have a physical exam. You also may have one or more of the following tests:
Some of these tests can be done in your health care provider’s office. Others may be done at a hospital or surgical center.
Treatment for abnormal perimenopausal bleeding or bleeding after menopause depends on its cause. If there are growths (such as polyps) that are causing the bleeding, surgery may be needed to remove them. Endometrial atrophy can be treated with medications. Endometrial hyperplasia can be treated with progestin therapy, which causes the endometrium to shed. Thickened areas of the endometrium may be removed using hysteroscopy or D&C.
Women with endometrial hyperplasia are at increased risk of endometrial cancer. They need regular endometrial biopsies to make sure that the hyperplasia has been treated and does not return.
Endometrial cancer is treated with surgery (usually hysterectomy with removal of nearby lymph nodes) in most cases. Discuss your options with your health care provider.
Cervix: The lower, narrow end of the uterus, which protrudes into the vagina.
Estrogen: A female hormone produced in the ovaries.
Hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus.
Lymph Nodes: Small glands that filter the flow of lymph (a nearly colorless fluid that bathes body cells) through the body.
Ovulation: The release of an egg from one of the ovaries.
Progesterone: A female hormone that is produced in the ovaries and prepares the lining of the uterus for pregnancy.
Progestin: A synthetic form of progesterone that is similar to the hormone produced naturally by the body.
Uterus: A muscular organ located in the female pelvis that contains and nourishes the developing fetus during pregnancy.