Menopause is a natural biological process that marks the permanent end of menstruation and fertility in a woman. When a woman has gone a full year without having a period, she is considered to have gone "through menopause." However, changes associated with menopause may begin as much as 8 years earlier and include both physical and emotional symptoms. These menopausal symptoms vary a great deal from woman to woman, as does the age at which menopause occurs.
Changes related to menopause may begin to appear anywhere from 2 to 8 years before menopause actually occurs. For most women, this happens in her late 40s. This time of change leading up to menopause is often called perimenopause.
The first symptom for most women is a change in her periods. Periods may no longer be regular. Skipping periods is common, and bleeding may be heavier or lighter and longer or shorter in duration. Another common physical symptom of menopause is hot flashes, a sudden feeling of warmth over the body or parts of the body. The neck and face may become flushed, and red blotches may appear on the arms, chest and back. When hot flashes occur at night, they are called night sweats and they may disrupt sleep. Other symptoms include vaginal dryness, changes in sexual desire (greater or less) and trouble sleeping. The waist may thicken, muscle loss and fat gain may occur and the skin may become thinner.
Many women experience moodiness and irritability during menopause. These feelings may be the result of several factors including feeling tired from loss of sleep, depression or stress. Some women have feelings of sadness about losing their fertility or feel that menopause signifies loss of femininity.
According to the National Institute on Aging, the average age for women having their last period is 51. However, the National Women's Health Resource Center reports that menopause can occur as early as the 30s and as late as the 60s. (see References below) There is no connection between the age of a woman when she has her first period and her age at menopause. When menopause occurs before the age of 40, it is considered early menopause.
Irregular menstrual periods are common during the time leading up to menopause. However, they can also be a symptom of uterine cancer or other uterine abnormalities. Symptoms that require prompt medical attention include periods that stop and start again after several months with heavy bleeding, irregular spotting, bleeding after intercourse or starting to bleed again after menopause.