Early menopause is a term used to describe the early failure of ovarian function. Since most women begin menopause in their late 40s to early 50s, the difference with early menopause is that the change of life begins in the 20s, 30s, or early 40s.
Now, it is important to understand the clinical terminology since it has very different meanings:
- Early Menopause – The complete stop of menstrual cycle for a full 12 months prior to the age of 45
- Premature Menopause – Menopause occurring before age 40 occurring naturally (not caused by surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation
- Premature Ovarian Failure (POF) – Dysfunction of ovaries whereby they are no longer working as they should, shutting down years, if not decades ahead of time
With normal menopause, a woman will stop having her monthly cycle. With this, the ovaries no longer have eggs, the ovaries are no longer responding to the body’s hormone signals, or the ovaries have been surgically removed or damaged. Prior to the cycle stopping, the woman will go through a normal transition period known as “perimenopause.” This phase of the process can last anywhere from two to six years. Once the menstrual cycle stops, the women is considered menopausal.
Early Menopause – How Early is Early?
In most cases, a woman will finish menopause around the age of 52, meaning the average age space for this process is from 47 to 54. Therefore, if for any reason a woman goes through menopause prior to this time, she is considered premature or early menopause.
Now, if menopause ahead of time is caused by chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, then the body is going through the changes for obvious reasons. However, if a person has perimenopause, they have begun to go into menopause earlier than considered normal because again, hormone levels are low and fluctuating but the ovaries are still functioning.
Depending on the symptoms and severity of the symptoms, if you have this type of menopause, your gynecologist may recommend that you take low-dose hormone replacement therapy.
The result is that the effects of having low estrogen levels at an early age would be corrected until the appropriate time to start into menopause. The key is to work with a qualified doctor who will work with your body to get the life process back on track.
If you are experiencing early menopause, know you are not alone and that there are options available.
Again, if you’re experiencing any signs of menopause, see your doctor. If you’re young, tests will be run to rule out more serious health issues prior to a diagnosis of premature menopause.
For many women, early menopause causes an increase in some of the psychological symptoms of menopause – many women fret about having their reproductive options taken away from them too soon, or feel that menopause is indicative of aging – while these are natural emotional responses, know that, other than your reproductive system, you’re still as young and as sexually capable as you otherwise would be.
Of course, if you’re having severe emotional problems due to premature menopause, you should speak openly with your physician.
In addition to surgery and cancer treatments, there are several causes of premature or early menopause. Some of the most common causes include:
- Autoimmune disorder: As many as 70% of women suffering from premature ovarian failure without surgery or cancer treatments have suffered from some autoimmune disorder. In an autoimmune disorder, the body’s immune system inadvertently attacks itself, sending its own antibodies to counter its mistaken intruder. Some common autoimmune disorders leading to premature menopause include thyroid disease, diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis.
- Chromosome irregularity: This is a less common issue, and more difficult to discern, but chromosome irregularity is caused by defects on one of our two X chromosomes. In addition to defects on the X chromosome, diseases such as Turner’s Syndrome, and the presence of three X chromosomes, can cause premature menopause. Chromosomal problems are largely due to genetics.
- Tamoxifen: Tamoxifen was once a prescribed medication for breast cancer, and is now prescribed to those women at a high risk of breast cancer. While its effects on breast cancer have been largely successful, one side effect is that it can increase your risk of prematurely achieving menopause. Take note that while your body may achieve premature menopause, as Tamoxifen acts as an estrogen inhibitor, sometimes this is a temporary effect, and women have reported returning to normal ovarian production after they stop taking the drug.
- Family history: If the women in your direct lineage have gone through early menopause , chances are you will as well. Don’t be afraid to discuss menopause with members of your family who have already gone through it – in addition to the mental and emotional support, you can likely get a good understanding of when you can expect to be menopausal and which symptoms will likely affect you the greatest.
- Viral infections: If your mother suffered a viral affection while she was pregnant with you, it may have affected your ovarian development. Likewise, if you’ve suffered from viral infections such as mumps, which could have spread to your ovaries, it could interfere with your ovary function. In these cases, you could either suffer from having fewer eggs than most women (leading to premature menopause), or run out of eggs more quickly.
Other disorders, such as thyroid disease, pituitary disorders, and adrenal disorders may result in similar symptoms to menopause, but you likely won’t be considered menopausal. In addition, an extreme change in your weight, your exercise routine, or your use of certain drugs can cause the cessation of your period, without any other menopausal symptoms. This is usually temporary.