There is a lot of pressure on women in their 30s to re-produce “before menopause”. Menopause, like a looming spectre, is burnt into the consciousness of many modern women.
In addition, many people in Generation X have left the child-raising period of their lives very late, but time is catching up with them and they now stand on the edge of menopause and entering peri-menopause (the stage immediately before menopause). There is a high level of consciousness around decreasing fertility with age, but these Gen Xers are now having first-hand experience of that as they try for a baby and find it is taking longer than expected, or discover that they have physical problems that will prohibit them from conceiving naturally.
Most people know someone who has had to turn to invitro fertilisation (IVF) to seek help conceiving, which helps bring home the stark reality of the cycles of life and increase the anxiety around “leaving it too late”. It can cause the desire to find a partner and start a family to be elevated to fever pitch, creating huge stress and anxiety.
The underlying question, of course, as women notice their body changing over time, is “Is this menopause?”. Anxiety about menopause, especially in women who are yet to have their family, is likely to precede the actual event by many years. One day, though, the answer will be “Yes”.
So, how do you work out whether the changes you are noticing in your body can be attributed to menopause, or to other causes? Sometimes a serious illness can be mistaken for menopause – such as ovarian or cervical cancer – causing women to delay seeking medical attention, having thought it was a normal part of ageing. A change in lifestyle can also have a noticeable impact on your general wellness that may be observable as changes to the body.
Signs and symptoms of menopause
Not all women will experience symptoms of menopause. Only about 70 percent of people do. Some of the signs and symptoms to look out for, though, include: hot flushes, night sweats, irregular periods, sudden shifts in mood (like a teenager), changes to sex drive (increase/decrease), fatigue, irritability, weight gain, irregular heartbeat, and depression. Other symptoms may also be: dizziness, difficulty concentrating, brittle nails and thin skin, changes to your smell, panic attacks, upset sleep and hair loss.
Many of these symptoms are quite similar to some common ailments and chronic diseases and can easily be mistaken.
Tests for menopause
The best way to work out whether you have started menopause is to seek medical advice and consult with your family doctor, who can run some tests or give you an expert opinion based on the information you provide about your experiences, family history and medical history.
The hormonal cycle before menopause, called peri-menopause, is a period of inconsistency and not easy to diagnose. Hormone levels can vary significantly during the month and even medical tests can be inconclusive.
Testing for menopause, however, can be easier as you get further into it. Checking to see if there are elevated levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is one way this can be done. The convention is that if a woman has not had a period for a year, and the levels of FSH in the blood is consistently elevated to 30 mIU/mL or higher, then she has reached menopause. One test is not enough to confirm this, however, and a low level of FSH, with other symptoms present (such as hot flushes and irregular periods) does not mean menopause is precluded. If you are taking the pill, then the test is invalid.
A saliva testing is sometimes recommended by doctors, but this is not a reliable test for menopause.
Rule out other causes – don’t assume it’s menopause
If you suspect that you are entering menopause, it’s advisable to visit your doctor and have the possibility of serious illnesses ruled out. Thyroid disease, heart disease, cancer and a range of other conditions can have some similar symptoms. Early diagnosis will give you a better outcome if the cause of your symptoms is not life-cycle related, but rather is an indicator of a serious health problem.
Katherine West is a health freak and freelance writer who in 2003 studied for a Diploma of Nutrition. She is also into yoga and pilates.