Shakespeare once declared that a man during his lifetime would play seven parts; the infant, the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the elder and second childhood. Shakespeare may not have written about it, but women play just as many parts and their bodies change dramatically during the different stages of their lives that include adolescence, which is marked by the onset of menstruation and fertility, and menopause, which signals the end of fertility.
Menopause, sometimes referred to as the change of life, marks the end of fertility in women and is considered to have occurred 12 months after a woman’s last menstrual period, according to MayoClinic.com. Menopause is not an illness or medical condition. It is a normal, natural part of every woman’s life, although changes in hormone levels can result in some unpleasant physical, emotional and psychological side effects.
Fertility begins with the onset of puberty and is usually marked by the beginning of regular menstrual periods. The ovaries release an egg each month in a process called ovulation. The egg travels down the fallopian tube and settles in the uterus where it awaits fertilization. If fertilization occurs, the egg attaches itself to the wall of the uterus and the woman is considered pregnant. If fertilization does not occur within a few days, the lining of the uterus is sloughed off and discharged — along with the unfertilized egg — during the woman’s regular monthly period.
Every woman is born with a finite number of ovarian follicles that have the potential to become mature eggs. The number of follicles drops dramatically from around 2 million at birth to around 300,000 at puberty; most of these follicles will not mature into eggs. Once the supply of follicles that are available to develop into mature eggs has been exhausted, menopause begins. Since there are no more eggs available to be fertilized, it is impossible for a woman to become pregnant after she has experienced menopause.
Many women experience a period of time called perimenopause, which happens prior to menopause. It can last from a few months to several years. During perimenopause, a woman’s regular menstrual cycle may be shorter or longer than normal. Her flow may be heavier or lighter. She may go for months without a period and then have a period that lasts much longer than usual. Perimenopause may be accompanied by hormonal imbalances that result in mood swings, hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, weariness, fatigue and a host of other unpleasant symptoms. Perimenopause may be mistaken for menopause, but it is entirely possible for a woman to become pregnant during perimenopause.
It may be difficult to determine with certainty the precise onset of menopause. Until a woman is in menopause, she may still get pregnant. Women who are sexually active should continue to practice birth control measures while they go through the change of life to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Sexually active women who know they have experienced menopause should still embrace safe sex practices, such as maintaining a monogamous relationship or by using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.