While many inconvenient symptoms women experience prior to menopause decrease after menopause, postmenopause comes with increased risk of other conditions, like osteoporosis and heart disease, as well as less serious but still bothersome symptoms like sleep difficulties and weight gain.
However, a Kokomo doctor, Dr. Robert Kinsey of Community Howard Regional Health, encouraged women at a presentation last week at the Kokomo Family YMCA to embrace that time, as those years can make up a significant portion of their lives.
“I always try to talk about embracing menopause. This is not a negative time in a woman’s life. It’s a change. I think it’s important to embrace the change. It’s a beginning of a new generation. It’s a part of aging,” he said. “If a woman lives until 85, a woman is going to spend 35 years in menopause. That’s one-third of her life, so that’s a significant time.”
To better understand what happens during the postmenopausal years, Kinsey said it’s important first to understand menopause, which is a natural process in which a woman’s period stops, and the ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Kinsey defines a woman having reached menopause as when she hasn’t had a period for a year. During that time, many women experience symptoms, though he said the severity and duration vary from woman to woman. Most women go through menopause between ages 40 and 55.
The most common symptoms include hot flashes, night sweats, trouble sleeping, vaginal dryness, weight gain, forgetfulness, and trouble focusing.
The biggest complaint Kinsey said he hears from his patients is in regards to weight gain. The second most bothersome symptom his patients have are hot flashes and night sweats, he said. Still, there is an array of other symptoms that have an effect on women’s lives.
“As we age, women tend to get hot, and men tend to get cold. You can see changes with fatigue, changes in energy levels, changes with sleeping. Some women will see mood changes, depression, irritability. Anxiety is common. It can be very disruptive,” he said. “ … It can impact a woman’s self-esteem as you see a change in body image. I think it does affect relationships in husbands and wives and significant others.”
Kinsey said a common misconception is that the changes experienced after menopause all are due to hormones.
“That’s just not the case. Our lives are complicated. We got through midlife changes. Kids grow up. Empty nest affects moods and relationships. Unfortunately, we have poor health habits, smoking, drinking too much, diet, weight. It all has an effect. Stress has an effect, and depression has an effect. So hormones are part of the problem but not the total problem,” he said.
While hormone replacement therapy can help with symptoms of menopause, like hot flashes and night sweats, Kinsey said there are various other therapies and medications that can help and that hormones are not for everyone. He has very few patients over the age of 60, he said, who are taking hormones.
To help with hot flashes, Kinsey said regulating breathing can help significantly. Typically, people take 16 to 17 breaths a minute. By reducing breaths to six or seven at the start of a hot flash, Kinsey said that will reduce its duration.
The more serious problems that can affect women after menopause affect bones and the heart, which previously were protected by hormones.
“Women are protected with their hormones up until about the age of menopause. In menopause, women catch up to men real quick, so you’ll see changes in lipids, bad cholesterol. You can see skeleton changes,” he said.
As a woman approaches menopause, she will start noticing a weakening of the bone structure. In a woman’s early 40s, Kinsey said he really starts encouraging more physical activity to strengthen bones. He also said it’s a good idea for a woman in her 40s to take a women’s multi-vitamin or a once-a-day calcium pill. He recommended 500 milligrams of calcium pre-menopause and 1,000 milligrams post-menopause.
While he said hormones also can improve bone structure, he said that’s not a reason to use hormones due to a slight increase in the risk of certain cancers.
And because of the increased risk for heart disease after menopause, Kinsey said women should be especially conscious of their diet and lifestyle.
Overall, Kinsey said a healthy lifestyle can go a long way in improving one’s health. Diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, and nuts are said to be heart-healthy, while foods such as red meat and sugary foods and beverages should be limited.