Menopause is defined as the cessation of menstrual periods due to decreased estrogen production. This phase of life officially begins 12 months after periods have stopped. For most women menopause begins between the ages of 40 and 60, with the average age being 51. While the definition of menopause may sound somewhat simple, it is a complex stage of life that affects almost every system in the female body.
Menopause can manifest itself in various symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, memory loss, vaginal dryness, depression, osteoporosis, and decrease in sexual desire, to name just a few.
Most women experience some discomfort during this period, so many women turn to herbal remedies, drugs, and hormones, to alleviate their symptoms. However, one group of women have to deal with the difficulties associated with another problem —- that of late menopause, sometimes referred to as delayed menopause.
Causes of Late Menopause
While there isn’t a clear definition of late menopause, if a woman reaches age 55 or older and still hasn’t started menopause it is usually considered late. Studies have been done to determine what influences the early or late onset of menopause, but there are still many unknowns. However, the following factors seem to have some bearing on the timing:
- Family History — If your mother experienced a late menopause, you are more likely to experience a late menopause also.
- Smoking — Women who smoke for many years tend to experience an earlier menopause.
- Nutrition — Good nutritional habits tend to support a later menopause.
- Alcohol Use — Moderate use of alcohol tends to support a later menopause, although alcohol abuse may cause an earlier menopause.
- Number of Children — Women who have never been pregnant tend to experience earlier menopause. Likewise, the more children a woman has had, the later the onset of menopause. However, studies on this issue have been conflicting.
- Thyroid Disorders — The thyroid regulates metabolism; when it isn’t functioning properly it can affect a woman’s reproductive system causing either an early or a late menopause.
Benefits of Late Menopause
Besides delaying the emotional aspect of going through this phase of life there are a few other potential benefits of late menopause, although they are somewhat controversial. The greatest benefit can be cited in a 2003 study in Norway, reported by the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study found that women who experience menopause after the age of 52 have a longer life expectancy.
Other benefits include:
- A delay of menopausal symptoms, although perimenopause comes with its own set of discomforts.
- A woman has a longer child-bearing period, if she is interested in having a child during her mid-life years. However, these late pregnancies carry higher risks for mothers and babies.
- A woman continues to produce estrogen, which helps prevent osteoporosis and heart disease.
Unfortunately, there is another side to this, as the risk of some cancers escalates.
Dangers of Late Menopause
The downside of late menopause revolves primarily around the fact that the body experiences longer exposure to estrogen. Because of this, there is increased risk for breast, uterine, ovarian, and colon cancer.
There are some women in particular who may be at higher risk if their menopause begins late. They are:
- If there is a family history of ovarian cancer, women who began menstruating before the age of 12 who have never conceived, but may have undergone fertility treatments to try to become pregnant may be at higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Obese women have increased health risks as fat cells tend to retain estrogen longer, so ovarian cancer risk increases.
- Women with high density breast tissue are at increased risk for breast cancer.
The Bottom Line
To some extent, there is little that one can do to control when menopause begins. The rules of healthy living pretty much apply here, as one cannot alter one’s genes or family health history. Eating a well-balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising are smart options for every woman, as are having regular check-ups and mammograms. If there is cause for concern regarding your menstrual/menopausal cycles, the best course of action is to talk with your doctor.