THE average life expectancy for women in Jamaica is about 76 years, and the the average age of menopause in Jamaica is 51 years old. That means our women spend around 25 years in this period after menopause commences.
The transition into this new phase of life is often met with mixed emotions. Fear and confusion can occupy the minds of even the most educated and well-prepared women. It's important to understand the process of this transitional period so as to better prepare oneself for what can actually be the best time of your life.
What is menopause?
This scientific term relates to the time when your period has stopped for one full year. However the process is a gradual one, and it may actually take months or even years to get to this point. This transitional stage is called perimenopause. During this time your hormone levels (oestrogen and progesterone) will gradually lower, leading to myriad symptoms:
• Shorter cycles
• Irregular cycles (missed periods)
• Mood swings
• Vaginal dryness
• Low sex drive
• Hot flashes
Apart from these obvious symptoms, we must note the silent role that oestrogen plays in protecting the heart and bones. This is partly why women have a higher risk of heart attacks and broken bones after menopause.
The psychological effects go beyond just hormone-related mood swings and irritability. The stress related to preparing for retirement, children and other family dependents, body image changes, and just the fact that you will soon be facing your own mortality, compounds everything else that's going on.
So what can you do?
1. Start early
Though it is never too late to start preventative measures, the earlier the better. Getting into the right habits from your 20s and 30s will definitely make the transition easier — both mentally and physically.
2. Eat right
Maintaining a healthy body fat percentage (notice I did not say weight) will offset much of the increased heart disease risk that accompanies menopause. Having adequate amounts of calcium in your diet will help to maintain strong bones. The jury is still out on herbal supplements like ginseng and ginkgo biloba for menopausal use, however many women swear by it and there are a few studies out there that support their use in treating and preventing some symptoms. Talk to your doctor about all supplements you're taking and if they help, all the better.
Regular exercise (cardio and strength training) is recommended for pretty much everybody. For menopausal women, the cardio helps with circulation and heart health. The strength training helps to keep bones strong and also helps with balance and coordination, to limit falls. Now you don't have to be Ernestine Shepherd, but being fit enough to move around comfortably and get up out of the chair without needing the chiropractor are things we should all aspire to.
4. Talk to your doctor about medical options
Get checked out for medical conditions that can pop up in this age group. If you're already having symptoms that sound like they could be due to menopause, be sure to confirm that it really is it, and not something else like thyroid disease. Medications are available to help with symptoms, and they're not all hormone replacement therapy. Vaginal dryness, for example, can be helped with a simple injection that can also increase sexual desire and pleasure. Bone preservation can be helped with special medications given just once a year.
5. Other useful tips
Get enough sleep, preferably six to eight hours. Avoid triggers for hot flashes like spicy food, caffeine and alcohol. Not everyone identifies these items as triggers so you'll have to figure this out for yourself.
What about pregnancy?
Well the short answer is yes, you can still get pregnant in the perimenopausal phase. It's less likely, and even if you do the miscarriage rates are higher than in younger women, but you can still have a baby at 50. So if you're not interested in pregnancy during this time, seek out safe contraceptive methods.
On the other hand, if you find yourself in this period wanting to get pregnant, see an obstetrician first. Again, it's possible but some fertility assistance is usually required, and you'll need to be monitored by someone experienced in dealing with high-risk pregnancies.
These tips won't eliminate all the issues, and certainly there are other things you can do to help you get through it. Talk to your friends and family, do your research, but make sure you discuss your health plan with your doctor so you can have a plan that's tailored for you.
Dr Ryan Halsall is a consultant obstetrician gynaecologist who operates at ILAP Medical, 22 Windsor Avenue, Suite 2, Kingston 5. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 876-946-0353. Follow him on Instagram: @drhalsall
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