My car’s license plate reads “HOTFLAS.” I take it for granted, until someone rolls down his window to talk to me at a stop sign.
“Hey, I like your license plate,” he says. “You must be about 50. Wow, my wife is going through that. It’s really tough. It’s been a real challenge.”
Only a few days later, I was meeting with a colleague from a nonprofit for whom I volunteer. “Remind me what you do,” he said. It took about half a sentence from me (“I’m a doctor specializing in menopause care…”) to strike a nerve with him. “It’s like a stranger is living in my house,” he said, of his wife’s journey through menopause.
It’s Menopause Awareness Month. These men—among so many others who regularly cross my path—are aware of menopause. Now. I think it’s safe to say that the experience has taken them—and their wives—somewhat by surprise. I can’t think of another medical condition that affects so many of us—directly and indirectly—yet about which we have so little advance education.
Six thousand American women become menopausal every day (defined as not having menstruated for a year). In the U.S., the average age of menopause is 51; that’s the age the youngest of the Baby Boomers are now. We have the highest proportion of menopausal women in our population we’ve ever had—and may ever have again.
And yet, women I meet in all areas of my life—and the men who are living with them—are surprised by the range of effects from the change in estrogen in their systems. While lots of jokes (and T-shirts) circulate about hot flashes, women don’t realize that they may also have
- Difficulty with memory and cognition
- Increased joint pain
- Urinary urgency and frequency, including susceptibility to bladder infections
About half of women have pain with intercourse five years after menopause. For whatever reason, many women don’t associate that symptom with menopause. Too many of us think it’s just “what happens.” Too many of our doctors don’t ask about our sex lives, so women don’t tell about their experiences. While there are a range of treatments—both over the counter and prescription—that would help, too many of us are unaware of them.
Avoiding the topic doesn’t make menopause go away. I’ll keep talking—to patients, to colleagues, to men and women on the street. I encourage you to learn everything you can, pay attention to your own health, and to join the conversation! We midlife women are indispensable resources to our families, our companies, our communities. We deserve to have this natural phase of our lives understood!
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.