Making the Most of Menopause
Although this natural process eventually affects half the population, it is not often talked about in polite conversation, becomes the scapegoat for various physical complaints or is simply the punchline of jokes about hot flashes.
Some women, expecting the worst, are amazed when menopause turns out to be not that big of a deal.
"Menopause gets a really bad rap," says Makeba Williams, MD, a UW Health obstetrician/gynecologist and certified menopause practitioner who sees patients at UnityPoint Health-Meriter - Monona Clinic.
"The average age of menopausal onset is 52, and it most often occurs between age 45 and 55," Williams says. "This happens to be a time when patients might be dealing with many stressors at home. They may have teenagers or are part of the sandwich generation, taking care of parents who are aging or managing career or financial challenges."
"Many women attribute that stress to menopause, which is a very normal, physiological change that happens at the ovarian level, and may not be the source of the stress they are experiencing," Williams added.
Dr. Makeba Williams on What Every Woman Needs to Know About Menopause
In the following video, Dr. Makeba Williams, UW Health OB/Gyn and certified menopause practitioner, explains the facts and latest research on menopause, its symptoms and treatment.
Complicating things, those diminishing estrogen and progesterone levels can affect each woman a little differently. Although the classic menopause symptoms we usually hear about are hot flashes or night sweats, other symptoms could include:
- Vaginal dryness/discomfort
- Disrupted sleep
- Muscle or joint aches
- Mood swings
Vaginal Dryness and Painful Intercourse
Vaginal dryness can lead not only to painful intercourse, but also to recurring urinary-tract infections.
"Your vaginal health may change with menopause, and that’s something we can help with," Williams says.
Vaginal thinning and dryness were not things that Lyn, a 57-year-old patient of Dr. Williams, was expecting, and it began taking a toll on her relationship.
"I had expected hot flashes and moodiness, but no one told me, ‘The vaginal dryness is going to be really bad,'" she says. "It’s just not something that people talk about."
After having her pain dismissed by another doctor, Lyn switched to UW Health. Dr. Williams quickly recognized the problem and prescribed medications to alleviate Lyn’s pain and discomfort.
"She gave back a part of me that I thought was gone," Lyn says. "She helped me get back to me. I feel younger."
Positive Benefits of Menopause
Some women may not have noticeable menopause symptoms at all.
"Many women will tell me, ‘I didn’t realize I was going through it until I didn’t have any more periods,’" Williams says.
And there may be benefits, too — besides no longer needing to stock up on pads and tampons.
"I feel like my moods leveled off. I became more balanced and even-keeled in my emotions," Lyn says.
Thanks to the "Boomer" effect, the menopausal population is growing. By 2020, there will be more than 50 million women at menopausal age in the United States. Because those women have unique health needs, it can be helpful to consult a menopausal expert such as the clinicians certified by the North American Menopause Society.
"Unfortunately, there are many myths associated with menopause," Williams says. "I think it’s important to seek out a menopause specialist, someone who really understands the issues and best, most effective treatments. Otherwise patients can spend a lot of money on expensive tests and drugs that they may not need, or may increase their health risk."
Menopause and Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy is one treatment that has become controversial over the years. It can be very effective for some women, but studies have found that it can increase risk of breast cancer and heart disease.
"Treatment needs to be individualized," Williams says. "We want to take into account your symptoms, how severe they are and what other health risks you have."
You’re considered menopausal if you haven’t had a period in at least one year, and the process usually starts between the ages of 45 to 55. If you’re not there yet, ask your mother or older sisters when menopause began for them.
"We tend to see that daughters will go into menopause around the same age as their mothers," Williams says.
Making Menopause More Comfortable
Unfortunately, it’s not a quick process. Symptoms such as hot flashes can last 11 or more years. But there are things you can do to make menopause more comfortable.
"I encourage all women to be your healthiest self first and foremost," Williams says. "Engage in a good exercise program for 30 minutes a day, every day, eat a healthy diet and try to be at a healthy weight. In terms of treating certain symptoms, nothing is as effective as hormone therapy, but we do know from studies that when patients are more stressed, they may be more symptomatic. You may not be as bothered by a hot flash if you’re feeling better."
Most of all, Williams emphasizes that menopause is a normal, natural process and not necessarily a problem.
"It’s a time when you can thrive. Life expectancy for women is 80.3 years, so you have a lot of life to live beyond 50," she says. "My role is to help you live your healthiest life through menopause and beyond."
Date Published: 04/19/2016