Menopause, which is sometimes referred to as “the change of life,” is a normal, natural part of the aging process for all women. It is defined as the end of fertility and is marked as having occurred 12 months after a woman’s final menstrual period. Menopause occurs after all the eggs in a woman’s ovaries have been exhausted, rendering a naturally occurring pregnancy impossible.
A woman’s reproductive years begin at puberty when hormones trigger the beginning of the menstrual cycle. The ovaries develop, and the ovarian follicles begin releasing ,eggs. If an egg is fertilized, it embeds itself in the uterus, and the woman is pregnant. If the egg is not fertilized within a few days, the uterus sheds its lining, which is discharged during menstruation. This process repeats itself regularly, typically on a 28 day cycle, until the supply of eggs is depleted. At that time, referred to as menopause, menstruation and fertility ceases.
Puberty begins for most girls when they reach 11 years of age, although it may start earlier or later. Breast development typically is the first sign of puberty, followed by the growth of pubic and underarm hair and finally the onset of menstruation, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Girls reach physical maturity around age 14. A woman is considered fertile, or able to conceive, once she begins ovulating, which typically occurs at the same time she begins menstruating. She remains fertile until she reaches menopause, which typically occurs around age 51 years.
Women who do not wish to become pregnant have several options. The most effective means of preventing an unwanted pregnancy is to abstain from sexual activity. Other options include the use of contraceptive devices such as condoms or intra-uterine devices, birth control pills, spermicides or surgical sterilization. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that abstinence is the only form or birth control that is 100 percent effective. All other forms of birth control involve some risk of pregnancy, as well as the potential for spreading sexually transmitted diseases.
The period immediately prior to menopause is called perimenopause. Perimenopause may last from a few months to several years. It is marked by a decrease in the levels of certain hormones which can result in several unpleasant physical, psychological and emotional side effects including hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, irritability, diminished sex drive, low energy and others. The menstrual cycle may become erratic, occurring early or late or not at all for several months at a time. Women entering perimenopause may suspect they are pregnant due to what they believe is a missed period.
Menopause is not an illness or a medical condition. It is a normal part of a woman’s life. Many women embrace this change of life as a new beginning. Benefits include freedom from a regular menstrual period and freedom from concern about the possibility of becoming pregnant. Regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, giving up smoking and getting adequate sleep can help alleviate symptoms of menopause and perimenopause, according to the Mayo Clinic.