Menopause

Early (premature) menopause

Early or premature menopause is typically used to mean the onset of menopause before the age of 45. It affects around 5% of women under 45, and 1% of women under the age of 40 (where it is referred to as premature ovarian failure (POF)). It had happened to several women we interviewed. They talked about it, and outlined what support and information they needed to help them cope.

What causes early menopause?
Sometimes there is no clear reason why a woman’s ovaries stop working early (premature ovarian failure). In other cases a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the womb or uterus) or an oophorectomy (surgical removal of the ovary or ovaries) can trigger an early menopause, as can certain illnesses and forms of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This is called secondary premature ovarian failure.
Symptoms
Regardless of the reason for early menopause, women said they experienced the same menopausal symptoms as older women, including hot flushes and sweats, memory problems, mood swings, decreased sex drive and vaginal dryness. Those who had been through a surgical procedure such as a hysterectomy, seemed more likely to experience stronger than usual menopausal symptoms (e.g. very hot flushes). (For information on menopausal symptoms, see section on ‘Symptoms’).
Emotional effects
The women we talked to wanted doctors and other health professionals to understand that the early menopause had affected them emotionally. They felt that their needs as young women going through the menopause were often overlooked. Their doctors’ approaches to the menopause varied. Some wanted to fix the problem in a practical sense, and didn’t seem aware of the emotional effects on younger women that were likely to follow an early menopause. (See also ‘Emotions' mood swings, anxiety and depression).
Going through the menopause in their 20s and 30s brought women face to face with decisions about infertility, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), ageing and long-term relationships (seeLoss of fertility’, ‘Hormone replacement therapy (HRT), ‘Getting older’ and ‘Relationships, sex and contraception’). Some felt they had grown old before their time. Those who had planned a family were devastated by the loss of their fertility so early.
Support networks
Women said that though the menopause itself was not an illness, an early one could be very difficult to cope with and that they would have liked more support. Those who lived overseas when they first sought medical advice found it hard to get up-to-date information and aftercare. Women wanted to talk through their concerns, especially about HRT and infertility and to talk to other women having similar experiences. They valued specialist clinics and health professionals with an interest in early menopause and recommended support groups and forums such as The Daisy Network (a premature menopause support group - see 'Resources and Information'). (See also ‘Support networks’).

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and early menopause
Most doctors recommend that women who have had an early menopause take HRT until they reach the age of 50, the normal age for menopause. This can help not only to relieve symptoms such as hot flushes, but also to reduce the risk of osteoporosis by preventing an early loss of bone density (see our website on ‘Osteoporosis’). HRT did not suit everyone at first - many women we talked with said it had taken months to find the right dosage and type of HRT. For some women, such as those treated for breast cancer, HRT is not an option. Self-help measures such as wearing cotton clothing and avoiding hot spicy food can help relieve hot flushes; while diet and load bearing exercising reduces the risk of osteoporosis (see ‘Hot flushes and sweats’ and ‘Changes in the body and keeping healthy’).

Early menopause can be distressing, especially for women in their teens, twenties and thirties. Having to cope with menopausal symptoms and the loss of fertility early can impair well-being and quality of life. Women can feel isolated from the majority who experience menopause in midlife. But they can ensure that their needs are met by seeking specialist medical advice and contacting early menopause support networks.

Last reviewed February 2015.

Last updated February 2015.

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