Menopause. It’s for older women, isn’t it?
Well, I was probably one of the women who thought it was, had Googled when women go through menopause as I approached it myself and found that the average age is 51. And lots of my friends were either at that stage, or through it. So pretty much stacking up with my view of the average age.
Then I went to the Daisy Network conference, a large support group for women suffering with Premature Ovarian Insufficiency (POI), also known as Premature Menopause.
Menopause is simply the name given to the time when you’ve not had a period for 12 months, and if you’re in your 40s, you kind of gear yourself up for it. You might notice some of the symptoms, changes in your periods, maybe hot flushes and other changes.
But what if you’re in your teens, 20s or 30s, the time when you’re supposed to be in your fertile years? Maybe the time when you’re thinking of starting a family and menopause should be far in the future.
It hits you hard when you hear these women’s stories:
Jess, in her early 30s, who was informed that she was in menopause just days after she’d been informed she had ovarian cancer. It was picked up during her blood tests.
Debbie, who at the age of 37, put her erratic and sometimes-missing periods down to having a high-powered job and the stress of a nasty divorce. She was told by the doctor that she was in menopause when she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t conceived with her new partner. Then giving him the news “staying with me means no children” (he did and they’re very happy).
Kate, again during investigation for fertility. Fortunately she had one ‘miracle egg’, had her baby, and then crashed straight into the symptoms of menopause immediately after the birth. Try dealing with a newborn with that chaos going on in your body!
Cat, now in her early 30s, was diagnosed with POI at 15, and there is a debate whether she actually completed puberty, so is it menopause? Either way, she’s been taking hormones for half of her life and is still 20 years younger than most women who go through menopause.
What is POI?
Age is the key factor, as early or premature menopause or POI is typically used to mean menopause that comes well before the average age of normal menopause.
Simply put, it means that the ovaries aren’t working properly. They stop producing eggs years, and in some cases even decades, before they should.
For so many, that is the hardest thing to cope with – imagine deciding to start a family to find that you’re no longer fertile. For some I spoke to, there was the heart-breaking regret about not starting a family earlier.
In addition, the ovaries are unable to produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which have important roles in women’s health and wellbeing. For women with this condition, it’s not just a matter of whether they take HRT for a few years in their 40s or 50s – many have decades to supplement the lack of hormones.
How common is it?
- About one in every 100 women under the age of 40, one in 1,000 women under 30 and one in 10,000 under 20 experience POI.
- In Britain 110,000 women between the ages of 12 and 40 are affected.
- A natural early menopause affects about 5% of women between 40 and 45.
Why does it happen?
POI can happen for various reasons. Genetic family history of early menopause; auto-immune diseases like type 1 diabetes, Addison’s disease and underactive thyroid; infections (though rarer); and surgery and some cancer treatments.
But there’s still a lot not understood about POI and in the majority of women – an alarming 90% – no underlying cause can be found.
The Daisy Network: supporting women and their families
The Daisy Network was created in 1995 to provide support to women who have been diagnosed with POI, along with their families and partners.
They understand that this diagnosis can feel incredibly isolating and often women are left confused and unsure where to go next.
It provides information and the latest research findings on various aspects of POI including Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and other treatment options, managing the longer-term health implications such as bone and cardiovascular health, nutrition, and the psychological impact. And it also helps women find out more about egg donation, adoption or how to lead a childless life positively.