Menopause is unpleasant. While the average age at which the majority of women experience the hot flashes, mood swings, night sweats, and sleep problems is 51, there is the possibility of experiencing this change much sooner. Margery Gass, MD, executive director of the North American Menopause Society states that "there's a very wide range for normal age of menopause, but it's considered 'early' when it occurs before 40."
Most women who go through early menopause know it's coming: radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) are all common causes. However, it can also be down to lifestyle, environmental, and genetic factors. Although only 1% of women experience their menopause before the age of 40, the factors behind an early change can also affect the risk for a handful of diseases and illnesses.
Below are 7 things that early menopause can mean for your health:
1. You Have a Lower Risk of Breast and Ovarian Cancer
Let's start off with the good news: "Women with higher circulating levels of estrogen have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, so those who hit menopause earlier actually have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who reach menopause later," says Elizabeth Bertone-Johnstone, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts. This is similar for ovarian cancer, which is directly linked to your number of ovulations. Therefore, the fewer ovulations you have, the lower your risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
2. You're Aging Faster
Now we have to move on to the darker facts of early menopause. Telomeres are small structures that protect DNA from damage, and their length can give a good indication of biological age (the shorter they are, the more advanced the aging). Women who go through menopause early experience shortened telomeres and damaged genetic structures sooner than others.
Every woman is born with a set amount of eggs, and one of the most widely accepted menopause mechanisms is that changes start to occur once the body has exhausted its egg stores. How does this connect to telomeres? Well, research has found that 25-45-year-old women with lower-than-average egg counts for their age (and therefore are closer to reaching menopause) had shorter ones, indicating accelerated aging.
3. You May Have Been Exposed to Toxins
Women whose blood and urine test positive for high concentrations of chemicals found in plastics, personal-care products, common household items, and the environment hit menopause 2-4 years earlier than women with lower levels of these chemicals. A lot of these toxins are uncontrollable - they can be found in soil, water, and air - but researchers also point to chemicals that come from microwaving food in plastic containers and synthetic ingredients in cosmetics, such as phthalates.
In fact, tests that were conducted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2002 found that 72% of popular cosmetics tested, including deodorants and shampoos, contained harmful phthalates. Regardless of how you have been exposed to them, the theory is that toxins may have an effect on how quickly your eggs are released or how badly they're damaged. Therefore, since egg-less ovaries lead to menopause, this means that toxins drastically increase the risk of early menopause.
4. It Might Not be Early Menopause - and You Could Still Get Pregnant
Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (POI), has the exact same symptoms of early menopause. Women who have POI don't have regular periods, which leads them to think that they're going through early menopause. The difference is that with POI, it's still possible for a woman to get pregnant. Gass explains that "it's rare, but possible. It's never definitive that you're in early menopause and not in POI, because there's no test that can tell the difference. So either way, if you don't want to get pregnant, you need to still use contraception."
5. You Have an Increased Risk of Heart Disease
Women who go through menopause naturally (as opposed to menopause as a result of chemotherapy or ovary removal) before they turn 45 have a 40% higher rate of heart failure than those who hit menopause at 50-54-years-old. Why is this? High estrogen levels have been linked to healthier cholesterol levels and blood vessels, leading researchers to believe that estrogen has a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. Therefore, early menopause means fewer years reaping the benefits of estrogen.
6. You Have an Increased Risk of Alzheimer's Disease, and Cancer
Shorter telomeres indicate more than just fast aging - damaged DNA actually increases your chances of developing age related illnesses, including Alzheimer's diabetes, and cancer. "Genetic mutations often have more than one negative effect, so the genes that are causing early menopause may cause other hereditary diseases."