What is early or premature menopause?

Premature Menopause occurs when a woman under the age of 40 stops getting her period for 6-12 months. No periods means no ovulation or egg production and so a potentially devastating effect can be the loss of fertility.

Defining the condition

Premature menopause can be sometimes referred to as early menopause, but the terms have slightly different meanings and uses.

Auckland University School of Medicine Obstetrics & Gynaecology Associate Professor Andrew Shelling explains that “premature menopause is the correct medical definition and refers to women under the age of 40 going through menopause.”

Early menopause is more of a social definition including all women who have gone through menopause under the age of 43 or 45.

Premature Menopause is also known as Premature Ovarian Failure. It is more common among women who have had major gynaecological surgery like the removal of ovaries or uterus or who have undergone chemotherapy for the treatment of cancer. It is also linked with some auto-immune diseases. There can be a genetic component as well. Blood tests that measure hormone levels can help determine early menopause.

It’s more common than you think

Dr Shelling says early menopause is surprisingly common and is likely to be experienced by one or two in every 100 women under the age of 40 and 1 in every 1000 women under the age of 30.

Although there is no evidence that premature menopause is becoming more common, it is becoming more important because many women are choosing to have children later.

Having children later offers women the opportunity to better establish their relationships, careers and finances and helps facilitate a more rapid return to the workforce as a result. A woman’s biological clock may not, unfortunately, regard these advantages as quite as important as her age.

Menopause usually occurs in women around 50 years of age, though can be earlier or later. Its symptoms result from a reduced production of oestrogen and progesterone. The symptoms of premature menopause are similar to menopause but may be experienced more intensely. These can include irregular periods, hot flushes, palpitations, urinary frequency or burning, vaginal dryness and pain during sex, decreased interest in sex and mood changes, sleep problems and night sweats.

There is also a range of psychological symptoms associated with menopause including mood swings, loss of memory or concentration, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, irritability, tiredness and insomnia.

Many women breeze through menopause with few symptoms at all. Others, unfortunately, are not so lucky. If you suspect you may be experiencing premature menopause, the first thing to do is to see your GP.

There is a brilliant NZ website set up by the NZ Early Menopause Support Group that is worth looking at for further information.