Menopause and quality of life

DR YANSIE ROLSTON Monday, April 17 2017

AS I advance in years one of the things I wished the elders had enlightened me on is that menopause – ‘the change’ has such a considered impact on quality of life. I know that those conversations can be problematic mainly because of social stigma, but as an issue which significantly influences wellness in large numbers of women it ought to be spoken about more openly.

Womens’ Health Concern defines menopause as: “that time in every woman’s life when her periods stop and her ovaries lose their reproductive function”.

In order words, it’s the stage when the functional life span of ovaries starts to fail, creating fluctuating hormone levels and causing altered bodily reactions.

This usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55 (in exceptional cases it can be 30s, or even younger), and lasting an average of seven years. However, even though we know that it is just a regular part of the natural ageing process and not an alien concept it is rarely discussed.

The complexities of gendered vulnerabilities are profound with approximately 80 – 85 percent of menopausal women going through a myriad of unpleasant symptoms. For the women who survived the experience relatively unscathed, I am very envious of you.

Symptoms can range from cognitive confusion or ‘brain fog’; poor memory; emotional irregularities; tiredness; sleep disruption; urinary incontinence; aching joints, irritable bowel, changes in sexual desire; vaginal dryness; thinning hair; fibrocystic breast disease; and the dreaded hot flashes – which are endured by three out of every four women. For many women including myself, the hot flashes are the most intolerable and embarrassing aspect of the menopausal transition.

My colleagues laughed endlessly as I alternated between sips of tea to warm myself, rapidly followed by gulps of ice cold water to cool down. One minute I would lament about the cold temperature in the office, then within seconds, I could sprint faster than Usain Bolt opening windows to let in some wintry cold air. Whatever was near at hand became a fan quelling the discomfort of the sudden rush of extremely intense body heat, and abating the sweat as it tried to create a facial steam and damp underarm patches. (Here’s a tip – in an emergency, rulers and CDs may be used as a fan, mobile phones can’t).

Hot flashes are known to affect physical, psychosocial, sexual, and overall well-being, and can be detrimental to social interactions in relationships and careers.

Partners, children, family members, and colleagues often struggle with the mood alterations, unaware of how disabling it can be for the woman.

Various studies have shown that the transition can pose detriments to mental health causing increased risk of depressive symptoms, and the potential for a re-emergence of a previous depressive episode. Yet so many women mistakenly suffer in silence, believing that it is just something they must put up with.

At an intergenerational forum on the topic, many of the women said that despite the challenges one of the positive aspects of the menopause was that it represented a coming of age – a time when they felt empowered to say what’s on their mind and have their voices heard, a time when they no longer held back their true feelings, thoughts and opinions.

What’s interesting, is that I have seen studies suggesting that women of colour experience an additional symptom of rage. I wonder if it’s in the context of the stereotypes of the ‘angry black women’ that this coming of age and freedom of expression has been misinterpreted as ‘rage’. On the other hand, as someone who struggled with the sleep deprivation, tiredness and mood swings, I can relate to the intense feelings of anger.

Don’t panic because it is not all doom and gloom as there are ways to manage the severity of symptoms and positively improve the mental health experience.

There are successful medical interventions such a hormone replacements which isn’t suitable for everyone, or natural remedies such as evening primrose oil (which works for me) starflower oil, and sage.

The key is in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, doing physical exercises such as dancing, walking, and yoga in conjunction with following a nutritional diet. But more talking about it and sharing experiences can make the transition much easier. Information can be found on the British Menopause Society website: www.bms.org.uk.

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