15 facts and myths about menopause

Menopause is exactly what it sounds like – a break in “menses” or periods. The last menstruation is called menopause. Before and after menopause, there is a period of several years when the hormones seek a new balance. This period is called perimenopause; its duration is different for each woman.

But how do you know if you are in menopause? And should you prepare for the worst? No woman is the same, and so every woman experiences this period differently. The transition to the menopause doesn’t have to be bad or scary. It can also be a period of liberation, an opportunity to make the transition to the next phase of life in a healthy and happy way. Therefore, let’s look at what is fact, what is myth, and discover how you too can look forward to happy and healthy aging!


1. Myth: Transition begins at age 50.

Menopause begins at the age when ovarian function begins to decline. The average age at which menopause begins is between 45 and 55. Some women experience change in their early 40s, while others do not experience it until their late 50s. About half of all women have reached menopause by the age of 50.

Menopause appears to be hereditary. Do you know when menopause started in your mother, grandmother and/or aunt? If so, this can be a good indication of when this period will begin for you.

Early menopause can occur as a result of smoking, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgical removal of the ovaries.


2. Myth: During menopause, you gain weight.

Whenever hormones fluctuate in the body, our metabolism can slow down. This makes us susceptible to weight gain. That said, there is no evidence that menopause actually causes weight gain. Researchers, on the other hand, have found that due to the drop in estrogen levels, fat storage can shift from the hips and thighs, to the abdomen. As a result, there is a chance that abdominal fat will increase.

The combination of fat shifting, a slowed metabolism, and a sedentary lifestyle, – which many people tend to do as they age-can – cause weight gain. However, when you eat healthy and exercise actively on a regular basis, you not only avoid weight gain, but will also improve muscle mass and bone health.


3. Myth: You don’t feel like sex anymore during menopause.

It is true that declining sex hormones during menopause can cause a change in libido. But a lesser libido is not entirely attributable to the result of hormonal fluctuations. It is more likely that factors such as mindset (depression, irritability), energy levels and lifestyle factors (diet, stress) have a greater influence on this. If you enjoyed sex before menopause, chances are you will continue to enjoy it.

The only drawback may be vaginal dryness. Vaginal dryness can occur with a drop in estrogen levels, this can lead to painful intercourse. In this case, taking more time for foreplay, small doses of estrogen creams and lubricants (silicon based) can usually solve the problem. Otherwise, gynecological treatment can often help.


4. Fact: With regular sex you can delay menopause.

A clear link has been found between sexual activity and the onset of menopause; according to a study by University College London. Researchers analyzed the data of 2,936 women who had been followed since 1996. It showed: the more sex, the later you enter the menopause! Women who are sexually active on a weekly basis are 28% less likely to go into menopause early than women who roll with a partner or satisfy themselves less than once a month. And even when you factor in level of education, BMI, smoking habits, estrogen levels and date of first period, this percentage remains stable.

According to the researchers, it has to do with how much energy a body puts into ovulation. The more sexual activity the female body experiences, the more it thinks pregnancy is (still) possible, keeping the menstrual cycle active. A number of scientists believe in the “grandmother theorem”: the less sex, the more your body turns off fertility mechanisms in order to pump extra energy into other activities, such as caring for grandchildren.

Does the type of sex matter? No, the type of sex does not matter. What matters is the sexual activity, so: regular solo sex and/or sex with a partner both potentially contribute to delaying menopause.


5. Fact: Menopause is genetic: the later you enter menopause, the healthier you will age!

A large team of international scientists have discovered that there are 290 genes associated with the timing of menopause. To do this, the genetic material of over 200,000 women who were already in menopause was scrutinized. This showed that the age when you enter menopause is genetically determined. It is mainly the genes for DNA repair and maintenance that play an important role. The better the genes do their work, the longer a woman is fertile. These are groundbreaking results, because previously it was not clear that these genes play such a major role in female fertility.

From the research, Prof. Dr. Joop Laven (professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam – the Netherlands) also concludes in an Erasmus Hospital article that the aging of your body determines how long you remain fertile. Thus, your body does not start aging once menopause has started, but menopause is actually the result of aging your body. It is therefore not the cause, but a symptom. It thereby reveals how well your DNA is still being repaired and maintained. When your body manages to repair DNA damage properly, more “well-repaired” eggs are left over, which means you are fertile for longer.


6. Fact: Women’s longevity may be related to menopause.

Do you know at what age your mother entered menopause? In fact, chances are that menopause will start in you at the same age. There is increasing scientific evidence that the age at which women enter menopause is genetically determined.

A new study not only provided new evidence, the scientists also discovered another striking similarity. On average, most women reach menopause around the age of 52. Yet there are plenty of women where this happens much earlier. External factors such as smoking, lack of sexual activity, obesity and chemotherapy or certain disorders can cause the menopause to begin earlier. In addition, the age at which your mother was menopausal also appears to play an important role.

Researchers from the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) analyzed data from previous studies on women, fertility and menopause. The results from this meta-analysis provided further evidence for the genetic basis of menopause. The same study found that women’s longevity is also related to their menopause.


7. Myth: Every woman in menopause has hot flashes and all hot flashes are the same.

Although, while about 80 percent of women experience hot flashes and night sweats, about 20 percent do not. Within the menopausal women who do experience hot flashes, some experience extreme hot flashes while others experience only mild symptoms.

According to a study published in the Menopause Journal in 2016, there are women who have hot flashes with what is known as an “early onset.” They experience hot flashes up to eleven years before their last period until shortly after menopause.

While others have hot flashes with a “late onset”, they often do not experience the symptoms until the end of menopause, until just before the time of their last period. Of course, there are also lucky people who never experience hot flashes and the unlucky ones, who experience hot flashes early in life.

The study also found that factors such as weight, health habits, nutrition, diet and education played a role in menopause patterns. For example, heavy alcohol use was associated with experiencing negative symptoms for longer, while obesity, depression and anxiety were associated with earlier occurrence of ailments.


8. Fact: Even after menopause, you should get a pap smear.

Many women think that after the age of 50 they are no longer at risk for cervical cancer and therefore no longer need to have a pap smear test. This is a big misconception because the average age of cervical cancer diagnosis is 54! Therefore, it is recommended that even after menopause, up to and including age 60, a cervical smear should be taken every five years to detect cervical cancer early.


9. Myth: The only symptoms of menopause are hot flashes.

During the transition period to the menopause, a wide variety of symptoms and signs can occur that can affect quality of life.

The most common menopause symptoms include:

  • Poor sleep.
  • Hot flashes.
  • Night sweats.
  • Mood swings.
  • Fatigue.
  • Dry/aging skin.
  • Palpitations.
  • Vaginal dryness/sensitivity.
  • Bloating sensation.
  • Sensitive breasts.
  • Joint pain.
  • Depressive behavior.
  • Osteoporosis (in the longer term).
  • Irritability.

In addition, women with pre-existing conditions may find that symptoms of these worsen during menopause. For example, a recent scientific study showed that women with rheumatoid arthritis experience a greater decline in physical functioning during menopause. As with hot flashes, lifestyle factors; weight, smoking, alcohol consumption and socio-economic status can influence these symptoms.


10. Fact: Consuming lots of carbohydrates can lead to earlier menopause.

According to findings from the University of Leeds in England, a diet high in carbohydrates may lead to earlier menopause. Higher consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods such as pasta and rice was associated with reaching menopause a year and a half earlier than the average age of women in the UK, which was 51 years instead of 52.5 years on average.

Although it is not yet clear whether this association is causal, the findings point to another possible disadvantage of eating high carbohydrate foods and especially refined carbohydrates. This type of study can only show associations and further research is needed to validate these findings.


11. Myth: Menopause doesn’t last very long.

This is different for everyone. But how long does menopause last? In fact, it can take years. So quite a bit of time may pass before menopause occurs. During this time, you may experience different periods, at irregular intervals, in which you experience menopause symptoms. The length of the periods, what symptoms you experience and the severity of the symptoms may also vary (heavy or light, a few days or longer).

During menopause, the function of the ovaries fluctuates, leading to fluctuations in sex hormone levels (estrogen and progesterone). It is these fluctuations that lead to the irregularity of menstruation and its various symptoms.


12. Myth: Only hormone replacement therapy can cure menopause symptoms.

Although hormone replacement therapy can relieve some menopause symptoms, there are other, more natural, ways to reduce frequency and intensity. For example, scientific research shows that regular exercise:

  • Can reduce hot flashes;
  • Can improve mood and sleep;
  • Can control body weight;
  • Can reduce fatigue.
  • Other ways include addressing factors that can make symptoms worse, such as: obesity, depression, anxiety, alcohol consumption, a poor diet and smoking.

This can be done by: relaxation exercises, healthier eating, increased intake of phytoestrogens, more exercise, less alcohol and working with an (orthomolecular) hormone therapist.


13. Fact: Brain Fog is a common symptom of menopause.

Many menopausal women complain of forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, confusion and brainfog (“cotton wool in their heads”) with regularity. These are characteristics of brain fog and are common during menopause. However, for many women, this is a relatively unknown symptom.

Should you be concerned when you experience forgetfulness during menopause, when you feel like you have trouble thinking and when you have trouble concentrating? It is reminiscent of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and many women are very concerned about this. Fortunately, in almost all cases it is about ‘Brain Fog’, a typical symptom of menopause or pre-menopause. Brain Fog is annoying and causes a lot of frustration, but it is transitory and most of the time you can do something about it yourself. Both preventively and to suppress or resolve the symptoms.


14. Fact: Quitting smoking helps reduce menopause symptoms.

This is because smoking has a negative impact on the production of estrogen. The more you smoke, the faster this process occurs. As a result, a woman can enter the menopause 2 to 3 years earlier on average. The earlier the menopause starts, the greater the risk of various disorders, because estrogen does not protect against them.

Research has shown that women who smoke have twice as many hot flashes and night sweats as if they did not smoke. Continued smoking therefore causes a less good night’s sleep, becoming overtired, irritable and feelings of stress. Quitting smoking helps you enter the menopause less quickly and healthier.


15. Myth: The menopause is terrible.

As we mentioned earlier, menopause does not have to be hell by any means. While some women experience many menopause symptoms, many also undergo few if any. What we can conclude from the studies; women who take good care of themselves (exercise, eat healthy, etc.) go through menopause with fewer symptoms.


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Sources: SHE. Health Clinics, NHS, PGGM & CoPlanet HealthSaar MagazineGezondheidsnetVitakruidRTL NieuwsWeek van de OvergangMembrasin