3 Things Women Should Know About Early Menopause

Most women in their 20s and 30s aren't thinking about menopause, so it can be a shock when your periods become irregular, you begin having hot flashes, or you start to have other commonly-noted symptoms of menopause long before you would have expected them. If this is happening to you, you may be experiencing premature menopause – sometimes known as premature ovarian failure – a condition that, according to the most recent studies, is on the rise and affects as many as one in 20 women. Take a look at a few things that you should know about premature menopause.

What Causes Premature Menopause?

The symptoms of premature menopause are no different from the symptoms of typical menopause. In addition to irregular periods, hot flashes, and night sweats, you may experience depression or anxiety, difficulty sleeping, pain, mood swings, and vaginal dryness – all normal menopause symptoms regardless of your age. However, while typical menopause is a natural part of aging for women, premature menopause can be caused by a variety of factors.

In some cases, premature menopause is caused by surgical intervention or medical treatment – if you've had a hysterectomy or undergone chemotherapy, for example, you'll experience premature menopause. Some women are genetically predisposed to premature menopause – if your mother or older sister experienced early menopause, the chances are higher that you will too. There are also autoimmune disorders that are linked to premature menopause. And as with many medical conditions, smoking and obesity are also risk factors.

But one of the biggest contributing factors to premature menopause appears to be poverty. Studies show that women living in economically disadvantaged conditions are 80% more likely to experience premature menopause. One current theory is that it's the stress of those conditions, in combination with other factors, that causes the premature ovarian failure. Stress can also exacerbate the symptoms of early menopause.

What Are the Health Consequences of Premature Menopause?

While the symptoms of menopause may be uncomfortable, they're not the only drawback to experiencing early menopause. The early loss of the hormone estrogen puts you at risk for a variety of other health conditions. Infertility is an obvious concern for women in their 20s or 30s who are experiencing early menopause. While it may still be possible for you to conceive a child once early menopause begins, you'll most likely need medical intervention to do so. Treatments range from hormones to stimulate your ovaries to produce eggs to the use of an egg donor.

Lower estrogen levels cause lower bone density, putting menopausal women at greater risk of bone fractures. Because you'll experience this lower bone density for longer than the average woman entering menopause at a typical age will, you're more likely than the average women to experience fractures. Your body will also age more rapidly, putting you at risk of age-related conditions like Alzheimer's at a younger than normal age. Finally, women who experience early menopause are twice as likely to experience heart disease and strokes. That's why it's very important for women with early menopause to seek treatment.

How Should Premature Menopause Be Treated?

There are two common treatments prescribed by doctors for women experiencing early menopause. Women whose periods have not yet stopped and who are still in the perimenopausal stage are often prescribed birth control pills. Birth control pills override and replace your natural hormones, which should regulate your period and help get your symptoms under control. However, birth control isn't appropriate for all women. It may increase the risk of stroke in women who smoke or who have high blood pressure or clotting disorders, and it may interfere with fertility treatments for women who are trying to conceive.

For women who are already post-menopausal, or for women who cannot take hormonal birth control, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is often a good option. Despite the name, hormone replacement therapy doesn't override and replace your hormones the way that birth control does – instead, HRT supplements the hormones that your body still makes, replacing only what you've lost. HRT is more customizable than birth control pills – it's available in a wide variety of formulas, dosages, and delivery methods. While HRT remains controversial in typically menopausal women, it is far less debatable in women experiencing early menopause. The risks associated with a lengthier period of estrogen deficiency outweigh the potential risks of HRT.

Women experiencing early menopause should also consider including counseling or psychological therapy in their treatment plan. The early loss of fertility and premature signs of aging can be emotionally stressful, and it's normal to need emotional support. Don't be afraid to ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist if you're having difficulty coping.

Only your doctor can tell you if what you're experiencing is early menopause. If you have irregular periods or other menopause symptoms, make an appointment at a place like Genemedics Health Institute to discuss testing and potential treatment plans right away.