What is Menopause, Exactly?

Final Curtain

What is menopause, exactly? That’s simple! Menopause occurs when ovaries and hormones stop egging each other on and fertility takes a final curtain call. It happens when ovulation ceases and begins when your periods end. The chance of getting pregnant nosedives to zero after 12 months without a period. Period. That’s it. In more ways than one!

About all those menopausal symptoms…

They’re all blamed only on menopause but in reality, these symptoms span perimenopause and post menopause. It might be helpful to understand that this is a 20-year process based on what our hormones are doing (or not doing), and when they’re doing it. So when we discuss menopause symptoms, don’t be checking off the days on your desktop calendar. This takes a while.

So exactly when does menopause occur?

I thought this would be easy to answer until I looked closely and tried to parse what my usual trusted sources were saying…no wonder we’re all so freaking confused!

The easy part of the answer is that menopause normally occurs between the ages of 45 to 55. But how do you know where you are in the process?

Menopause itself is actually only one year long— it starts with your last period and ends 12 months after it. That seems fairly straightforward but it gets confusing because perimenopause overlaps menopause; both end after 12 months without any periods, and you can’t be sure you’re in that last year until it’s over. But once it’s over, poof— you aren’t in menopause anymore, you missed it, you’re already postmenopausal! This is a little crazy-making in itself— menopause is such a big deal but you don’t even know when you’re in it.

So you go from peri- to post- in a flash. Or in one friend’s case, lay-on-the-cement-to cool-off melt-down hot flashes which showed little respect for slowing down on either side of the timeline. Menopause itself ain’t nuthin’. It’s the before and after that’ll either kill ya or make ya stronger.

So, in order to try to create some clarity on the issue, here’s what I got from my research on the topic:

North American Menopause Society (NAMS):
Menopause — the last period (but you don’t know it until a year later when you haven’t had a period for 12 months)
Peri Menopause — can last 6 years or more, and ends one year after the final menstrual period
Post Menopause — all the years after menopause (which overlaps with the last year of perimenopause! )

Mayo Clinic:
Peri Menopause — begins in your 30s-40s, ends after 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period
Menopause — permanent infertility, occurring 12 months after your last menstrual period

PubMed (US Nat Library of Med):
Menopause — is complete when you have not had a period for 1 year
Post Menopause — after you have not had a period for 1 year

Perimenopause — can last anywhere from two to eight years, including the first year after your final period
Menopause — 12 months after your last period to reach menopause

All these different explanations offer little consolation but it’s easier to pinpoint if you are experiencing surgical menopause, when medical treatments cause a drop in estrogen. This can happen if your ovaries are removed, or if you receive chemotherapy or hormone therapy for breast cancer.

Head spinning? No worries. Keep reading a few more posts on this site and I guarantee you will start laughing, stop spinning, and if you find the right products, will stop having annoying symptoms.

Here is an interesting study you might like to check out. The SWAN study is a long term research project studying women’s health across the nation. Begun in 1996, SWAN surveyed over 16,000 women aged 40-55, and then began a study of 3300 of those women who were pre- or perimenopausal. These SWAN participants were followed as they progressed through their menopause transition. Here are their findings.