Medically speaking, menopause is defined as 12 consecutive months without a menstrual cycle. And according to The North American Menopause Society, NAMS, it is estimated that in the 21st century, almost 6,000 baby boomer women per day will enter menopause, with many of those women living at least one-third of their lives in the postmenopause years.
But if menopause is defined as 12 consecutive months without a menstrual cycle, then what do we call the wacky 10 to 12 years occurring before actual menopause? You know, those bumpy, hormonally noisy years when women experience hot flashes, night sweats, crazy mood swings, erratic changes in their menstrual cycles, insomnia, weight gain, and just a general sense of losing their ever-loving minds? What is that called? Is there a name for it? Well, actually, there is, and it’s called perimenopause.
Perimenopause: The Time Around Menopause
The term “perimenopause” is a relatively new word in the modern medical lexicon. Up until the 1990s, when the word first began to be used, all of the hormonal changes that occur before menstrual cycles cease completely were lumped under the all-inclusive heading of “menopause.”
Some physicians and health care professionals still refer to the entire experience as menopause. But if you ask the women who are experiencing it, they will tell you perimenopause exists.
The prefix “peri” is of Greek origin and means “in the vicinity of” or “around.” So, literally speaking, perimenopause means “around the time of menopause.” This makes perfect sense if we are going to define menopause as 12 consecutive months without a menstrual cycle!
What are the Symptoms of Perimenopause and Menopause?
So if perimenopause and menopause are two different stages, then what are the symptoms? When does perimenopause occur? And more importantly, when exactly does menopause occur?
The average age of menopause is around 51 years old, according to Medicinenet.com. This means some women may reach their late 50s or even their early 60s before they stop having menstrual cycles. Some women are fully menopausal by the time they reach their mid-40s.
Given the average age of menopause is around 51 and the average length of time for perimenopause is about 10 to 12 years, then simple math suggests you can begin exhibiting symptoms of perimenopause as early as the mid to late-30s. On average, however, women begin to notice symptoms sometime in their early to mid-40s.
Though perimenopause can last as long as 10 to 12 years, that doesn’t mean the symptoms last that long or remain at the same level of intensity. The symptoms can be quite difficult for a lot of women, and they may eventually begin to wane and cease altogether when actual menopause occurs.
The hallmark symptoms of perimenopause are erratic menstrual cycles, hot flashes, night sweats, and insomnia. Heart palpitations, mood changes, vaginal dryness, thinning of the vaginal walls, loss of libido, depression, and urinary incontinence are symptoms of perimenopause as well, according to a report from the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality.
Lower estrogen levels can contribute to continuing hot flashes and night sweats in menopause, along with struggles with depression, loss of libido, vaginal dryness, thinning of the vaginal walls, and increased urinary incontinence for some women. Of course, it could also be said that these issues are simply related to aging. And this is true because menopause is very much a part of aging for women.
By the time menopause occurs, some women report being relatively symptom-free. Sleep cycles may normalize, hot flashes and night sweats may lessen, moods may stabilize, and they feel “normal” again. But many women continue to struggle with lingering symptoms during menopause. Women can talk to their doctors about these symptoms to decide if they want to receive any treatment for them.
But the good news is that it’s not all bad! Many women feel happier, more confident, and more energetic in menopause. Without the worry of a monthly menstrual cycle and the passage of the symptoms of hormone imbalance, they feel unencumbered and freer to pursue life on their own terms. So while no one likes the idea of aging, the trade-off can make it all worthwhile!
Baxter, S. & Prior, J.C. (2009). The Estrogen Errors: Why Progesterone is Better for Women’s Health. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. P. 56.
Menopause: What is Menopause? MedicineNet.com. Retrieved August 10, 2015. http://www.medicinenet.com/menopause/page2.htm
Chapter 1: Overview of Menopause. The North American Menopause Society (NAMS). Retrieved August 14, 2015. http://www.menopause.org/docs/2012/cg_a.pdf
35 Symptoms of Perimenopause. Healthline.com. Retrieved August 10, 2015. http://www.healthline.com/health-blogs/hold-that-pause/35-symptoms-perimenopause
Perimenopause: an Invented “Disease.” National Women’s Health Network. Retrieved August 12, 2015. https://nwhn.org/perimenopause-invented-disease
Dealing with the symptoms of menopause. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved August 14, 2015. http://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/dealing_with_the_symptoms_of_menopause
Reviewed August 14, 2015 by Michele Blacksberg RNRead more in Your Guide for Menopause & Hot Flash Treatment Options