Menopause is one of those huge life changes that all women know is coming, but no one ever feels fully prepared for when it does. But when it strikes before you’ve even turned 40, the shock is all the more distressing.
According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the menopause typically occurs between the ages of 47 and 53, but premature menopause affects around 1% of women before the age of 40, and 5% of women under 45. So what is it like to be hit by menopausal symptoms so early, and what support is available?
“I put the symptoms down to depression”
41-year-old Lou first noticed symptoms about 8 months ago but says: “Looking back, I think it’s probably been the last two years. My mom went through an early menopause at 39, but I didn’t think it would happen to me – so I just put the symptoms down to depression, and so did my doctor.”
After the antidepressants prescribed by her doctor made no difference, Lou had what she describes as a light bulb moment. “I went to see another doctor and said ‘I think these are menopausal symptoms’. She laughed and said, ‘No, you’re far too young,’ but I insisted on having a blood test and it came back that I was in the menopausal range,” Lou says.
For her, the symptoms so far have been mostly emotional, “like a rage that I’ve never experienced before – I’m very emotionally unstable and get mad about the littlest things,” she says. “I get hot at night too, and my joints are really stiff. If I’ve been sitting down for a long time, when I get up I’m like an old lady.”
Though she jokes that her inexplicable rage has been worse for her husband, Lou says the experience has really taken its toll on her. “It’s really hard because I’m trying to hide it, and it’s not talked about. You’re just expected to get on with it,” she says.
“I feel really ugly and old. I can’t go out anymore, this really bad anxiety about going out has just sprung up on me. I can talk to my friends about it, but because they don’t understand it feels like a pointless conversation really. I just wasn’t mentally prepared for it at all.”
What causes it?
For the majority of women like Lou, there’s no obvious cause for premature menopause, says Dr. Heather Currie, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and chairwoman of the British Menopause Society.
However, she adds, “It’s important for women who think they may be experiencing it to consult their GP, because the diagnosis can have serious implications on fertility and later health. Common menopausal symptoms can include infrequent or no periods, hot flushes, reduced sex drive, vaginal dryness and pain, itching or discomfort during sex, headaches, mood changes, palpitations, joint stiffness, and urinary tract infections.”
For Emily, who was diagnosed with premature ovarian insufficiency (POI) at just 17 years old, the impact on her fertility has been devastating. “As someone who has always wanted children, and for those children to be biologically mine, it’s been a very tough time,” she says. “I suffer from depression and anxiety, and I feel quite doubtful about the future now.”
Emily first suspected something was up when her periods started at the age of 14, later than her friends, and then promptly stopped again.
“My body told me something wasn’t right. I began to get what I described as ‘hot flushes’ – little did I know that was what they actually were!” she adds.
“The doctors said just this week that my ovaries have stopped working and there’s nothing they can do. I’ve been put on the pill to provide me with the hormones I’m lacking in.”
Indeed, while the physical symptoms of menopause are similar at whatever age it occurs, “younger women may also experience significant psychological distress, especially if they haven’t had children and were hoping to start a family,” Dr. Currie says.
“Hormone replacement therapy is recommended to replace the ovarian hormones in these young women, to help with menopausal symptoms and to reduce the long-term risks, such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis,” she adds. “There are fertility treatment options, involving IVF using donor eggs, and women may also find counseling or support groups, like the Daisy Network, helpful.”
For the more distressing physical symptoms, Gynecologist Dr. Ellis Downes recommends pelvic floor toning tools like Joylux’s vSculpt, “to improve symptoms of vaginal atrophy, urinary leakage and prolapse, which are common after the menopause – at whatever age it occurs – due to reduced estrogen levels and a secondary effect on collagen metabolism.”