Entering menopause can be a stressful time for women.
Hot flashes, night sweats, anxiety, difficulty sleeping…these are all awaiting women with the onset of menopause.
But, studies show that women who enter menopause earlier than normal, may experience more than these symptoms of menopause.
If you have experienced menopause earlier than the age of 40, biologically speaking, you may be aging more rapidly.
And, studies have revealed this may result in cognitive decline later in life.
So then, what can you expect when it comes to menopause?
Are you at risk for premature or early menopause?
And, what can be learned from these studies regarding women, premature menopause, and the risk of dementia (and other cognitive decline)?
Premature Menopause: Explanation & Cause
Premature, and early, menopause is exactly what it sounds like, menopause that happens early or prematurely.
So then, what is menopause?
Menopause is essentially the ending of a women’s menstrual cycle with age.
This occurs as the ovaries stop releasing eggs, and cease to make the hormone, estrogen.
These changes in hormones are what cause menopausal symtpoms such as:
- Hot flashes
- Changes in period (heavier, lighter, shorter, longer)
- Weight gain
- Night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Low mood
- Difficulty sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Memory problems
- Reduced sex drive
A woman is said to have entered menopause 12 months after her last menstrual period.
But, between the ages of 45-55, a woman may experience what is known as a menopausal transition where symptoms of menopause may begin to occur, such as those listed above.
The average age of menopause for women in the US is 51 years.
So, premature menopause is defined as menopause that happens before the age of 40.
And, early menopause typically occurs in women between the ages of 40-45.
While the difference between these terms only seems like some changes in wording and roughly 5-10 years, the causes associated with premature menopause carry a bit more weight.
Premature and early menopause can occur for seemingly no reason at all.
But, the onset of menopause prior to the age of 40 can also happen for the following reasons:
- Women with autoimmune diseases may enter premature menopause as it is possible for the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack its own organs, here the ovaries, which would cause them to stop producing hormones.
- Studies indicate that women with chronic fatigue syndrome are more likely to enter into menopause prematurely.
- Women with HIV, especially if this condition is not controlled, are at a greater risk of premature menopause.
- Women who are born missing chromosomes, or born having chromosomal problems, may enter menopause early.
- Women who have undergone surgery to remove their uterus (hysterectomy) will not enter menopause immediately after the surgery as long as they keep one or both ovaries. However, such women may experience menopausal symptoms a few years earlier than an average woman.
- Women who have undergone surgery to remove both ovaries (bilateral oophorectomy) can experience menopause immediately following surgery. And, as the removal of the ovaries causes an immediate drop in estrogen, the hormone produced by the ovaries, the menopausal symtpoms experienced here may be more intense.
Chemotherapy and Radiation
- Women who have had chemotherapy or pelvic radiation for cancer treatment may go through menopause prematurely.
- Smoking can negatively affect your health in many ways, including causing premature menopause and more severe menopause symptoms.
- If the women in your family have a history of going into menopause prematurely, unfortunately, this increases the likelihood that you will experience this as well.
Going into menopause prematurely, other than the common symptoms associated with menopause, can also bring about other health concerns.
Premature menopause puts women at a greater risk of developing heart disease and osteoporosis, and such women often experience greater instances of depression as well.
And, resarch also indicates that women who enter menopause prematurely are at a greater risk of developing dementia.
Premature Menopause & Dementia
Dementia is most commonly described as a loss in cognitive functioning such as memory, thinking, and reasoning, to the extent that such diminished functioning interferes with one’s daily life.
You may have noticed above, in the list of symptoms associated with menopause, that some women experience difficulties with cognitive functioning upon the onset of menopause (memory and concentration problems).
And, it is this symptom that researchers are finding even more troublesome for women later in life who’ve gone through premature menopause.
Obviously, a woman entering menopause prematurely would indicate that something may be a bit off in the body, and experts believe this early end to hormone production would signify an underlying genetic, environmental, or physiological issue.
And here, such an issue is leading the body to biologically age at a faster pace.
Recent studies examining these effects have found women who enter menopause prior to the age of 40 are 35% more likely to develop impairments in cognitive funtioning, specifically dementia, later in life.
Could this be due to this rapid biological aging?
Let’s take a look at the findings…
A large study observed data from 153,000 women in the UK who had participated in an ongoing study examining genetic and health information.
The study was adjusted for common factors such as age, race, weight, etc. and other elements such as cigarette and alcohol consumption, as well as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and physical activity.
Of those women observed, those who went through menopause before age 45 were 1.3 times more likely to receive a dementia diagnosis by the time they were 65.
Those women who experienced premature menopause had more than a 40% increased risk of poor performance on tasks associated with verbal fluency and visual memory.
And, those who entered menopause prematurely were also linked to a 35% higher risk of experiencing a decline in psychomotor speed.
Researchers believe the connection between early menopause and these impairments to cognitive functioning to be related to the lack of estrogen production.
Here’s what the piecing together of this puzzle looks like:
- Oxidative stress increases when the female body lacks estrogen for a long time.
- Increases in oxidative stress can cause the brain to age more rapidly.
- Rapid brain aging causes cognitive impairments, such as dementia.
Experts are hopeful that making women aware of this risk can help those who have entered menopause prematurely incorporate practices and strategies, with the advice of their physician, that can aid in the prevention of dementia and other impairments to cogntive functioning.
And, preventative measures shouldn’t be focused on cognitive functioning alone.
When premature menopause occurs, as we mentioned previously, this signifies a more rapid biological aging.
As this signifies something more than a simple hormonal change, to avoid risks such as heart disease and cognitive decline, women who have experienced premature menopause can seek to:
- eat a clean and balanced diet
- get adequate amounts of physical activity
- maintain a healthy weight
- quit smoking
- limit alcohol consumption
While some researchers do believe more studies need to be conducted to confirm and further understand the link between premature menopause and dementia, these findings do serve to make women, and the physicians treating them, aware of this apparent risk.
Understanding the presence of such risks can help us take steps to alter our lifestyle, promoting health and potentially preventing adverse outcomes.
And, for women who have already experienced premature menopause, seek to incorporate the healthy strageties listed above to decrease your risk of dementia (cognitive decline).