Menopause marks the end of a woman’s reproductive life. The literal meaning of the term menopause is the cessation of menstruation. The clinical diagnosis, however, relies specifically on total absence of periods for one year. Menopause usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55.
Except in particular cases of artificial menopause–as a result of ablation of the ovaries, for example–menopause is not an illness, but an inevitable physiological phenomenon. What happens is that, with age, the relationship between the ovaries and the brain (which governs hormone production) begins to deteriorate. Ovarian secretions gradually begin to dry up. The menstrual cycle becomes irregular-–and therefore periods too–-and eventually disappears altogether.
The cessation of ovarian activity is not sudden. The first changes in the menstrual cycle appear around the age of 40. This is the perimenopause, also known as the premenopause, when the menstrual cycle gradually becomes less frequent.
The premenopausal period is also marked by the appearance of symptoms such as hot flushes. Lasting between 30 seconds and 5 minutes, these often intense sensations affect 75% of women. They generally continue between one and five years after periods have ceased.
Contrary to popular opinion, the age at which a woman starts menstruating does not affect the age of the menopause. Nor does the number of pregnancies she has or how long she takes any contraceptive pills.
The only factor likely to influence the age at which menopause occurs is smoking. Women who smoke a lot and have done so over many years tend to go through the menopause one to two years earlier than women who do not smoke.