You’re probably familiar with some of the common and often talked about menopause health problems like hot flashes and mood swings, but there are also many others you might not know about. If you’re a woman, you can’t escape the fact that you will eventually go through menopause, but knowing as much as possible about what to expect can prepare you for this inevitable “change of life” and give you the tools you need to make the transition as comfortable as possible.
1. Diabetes: One of the Fastest-Growing Menopause Health Problems
The biggest risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes is being overweight or obese. However, regardless of your weight, going through menopause can increase your risk. Of course, this can be easily explained by the fact that being over the age of 40 increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, and it is during this age bracket that menopause occurs.
However, menopause itself can raise your risk for diabetes in a unique way, completely independent of age. The low estrogen levels that are the hallmark of menopause in turn affect the balance of many other hormones, including cortisol and ghrelin. Estrogen also affects how your body cells respond to insulin; therefore, low or wildly-fluctuating estrogen can send your blood sugar levels spiraling out of control. It is these blood sugar imbalances that ultimately can lead to diabetes.
If you are overweight or obese, you could greatly reduce your risk of diabetes by losing just five percent of your body weight. This is best done by avoiding sugary drinks and food and by getting plenty of exercise.
2. Heart Disease
Heart disease is another one of the more severe menopause health problems. Researchers don’t believe that menopause causes heart disease per se, but the two do seem to be correlated. The risk of heart disease increases with age for everybody, but, as we saw with diabetes, menopause seems to affect heart health independently of how old you are.
Scientists believe that the presence of estrogen is beneficial to the inner layer of artery walls, keeping the arteries flexible. With little or no estrogen circulating in the body, the arteries can become less flexible. Other changes that occur during menopause that can increase the risk for heart disease include higher blood pressure, higher blood triglycerides, higher “bad” cholesterol, and lower “good” cholesterol.
Heart disease is easily preventable by managing your weight, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, getting plenty of exercise and not smoking.
Osteoporosis is strongly linked to menopause. Osteoporosis is a disease that is characterized by loss of bone mass and bone strength. Quite often, the condition progresses without any noticeable symptoms. Therefore, some people don’t know they have osteoporosis until they suffer a fracture from something that normally would not have damaged their bones, such as a short fall, or a collapsed vertebra. Collapsed vertebrae produce symptoms including loss of height, spinal deformities, and severe back pain.
Bone mass naturally declines with age for everyone. However, yet again we see that the effects of low estrogen only add to preexisting age-related risk. Low estrogen levels caused by menopause cause loss of bone mass. This effect can be even more severe if you experience early menopause, defined as menopause before the age of 40. Low estrogen has such a profound effect on bone health that women are four more times likely than men to develop osteoporosis (though this is also due to the fact that women have somewhat lighter and thinner bones from birth).
You can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by doing regular strength training exercises and by getting plenty of calcium and vitamin D.
4. Vaginal Atrophy
It is common knowledge that menopause leads to vaginal dryness. This can be one of the most burdensome menopause health problems, as it can greatly reduce your enjoyment of sex. However, vaginal dryness is just one possible symptom of a collection of symptoms known as vaginal atrophy.
Vaginal atrophy involves general inflammation of the vagina and outer urinary tract. Without enough estrogen, the tissues of the vagina become thinner, drier and less elastic. Aside from the typical vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex, vaginal atrophy can also lead to infections of the urinary tract or vagina, discharge, burning or itching sensations, urinary incontinence, shrinking of the vaginal canal and bleeding after sex.
Vaginal atrophy can be easily treated with vaginally-applied estrogen, often in the form of a tablet or cream. Interestingly, researchers have found that women who have never delivered a baby vaginally have a higher risk of developing vaginal atrophy than women who have.