Menopause. It’s for older women, isn’t it? But early menopause can strike girls even in their teens.
I was probably one of those who thought it was for older women.
I 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.
The Daisy Network
Then I went to the Daisy Network conference, a large support group for women suffering with Premature Ovarian Insufficiency (POI).
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 stories like this, from Alice:
“I was 12 years old when I first started my period. They were always irregular. I’d have one, then not another for six months or so. Then they stopped altogether. My mum took me to the doctor, who said it was normal and they would sort out shortly.
But when I was 15 and they still weren’t regular, I went back to the doctors. I was given a number of tests at hospital, including an ultrasound to check for polycystic ovaries and any tumours or growths. They all came back clear. But I continued to have raised Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) levels, which caused concern.
The initial diagnosis of POI I received at hospital wasn’t conclusive, so I was referred to a specialist for an internal ovarian scan. This established that my ovaries were much smaller than they should be.
At the age of 17 I got the devastating news I was going through an early menopause. My mum and I had been hoping they could freeze and harvest any eggs for the future. But unfortunately this wan’t possible – I had no eggs left. I’m now on HRT patches.”
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% – there is no underlying cause 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 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.
Hats off to them, they do great, valuable work helping women feel supported during a confusing and life-changing time.