I wasn't sure what to expect with menopause, although I certainly looked forward to not having my period anymore. I have to admit, I'm concerned about how my body will change. My mother never talked about menopause. She says her mother never did either, probably because then it was linked to old age and poor health. Now, you hear about it all the time. The "baby boom" generation is making menopause a big issue because of their sheer numbers, and because they'll live with it much longer than their grandmothers did. Back then, menopause did come near the end of life. Now I'm going through it, but I feel like I still have my whole life ahead of me.

What Is Menopause?

More than one third of the women in the United States, about 36 million, have been through menopause. With a life expectancy of about 81 years, a 50-year-old woman can expect to live more than one third of her life after menopause. Scientific research is just beginning to address some of the unanswered questions about these years and about the poorly understood biology of menopause.

Menopause is the point in a woman's life when menstruation stops permanently, signifying the end of her ability to have children. Known as the "change of life," menopause is the last stage of a gradual biological process in which the ovaries reduce their production of female sex hormones--a process which begins about 3 to 5 years before the final menstrual period. This transitional phase is called the climacteric, or perimenopause. Menopause is considered complete when a woman has been without periods for 1 year. On average, this occurs at about age 50. But like the beginning of menstruation in adolescence, timing varies from person to person. Cigarette smokers tend to reach menopause earlier than nonsmokers.

The Female Reproductive System

Before menopause (left): The detail of the ovary shows the release of the egg into the fallopian tube.

The Female Reproductive System

After menopause (right): Notice thinning and shrinking of tissues from decreased estrogen and progesterone production.

Source: W.Utian and R.Jacobowitz, Managing Your Menopause, New York: Prentice Hall Press/Simon & Shuster, 1990, p.26.



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