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Menopause and Hormones

Menopause and Hormone Research

Menopause, or the cessation of ovulation, is a part of the normal life cycle of women. Menopause usually occurs at around the age of 51, with less than 1% of women experiencing menopause before age 40. After menopause, the ovaries no longer secrete two critical steroid hormones, estrogen and progesterone, in the amount or pattern characteristic of a regular menstrual cycle.

The transition from regular ovarian function to its absence is called the perimenopause. It can range from one to 10 years in duration. Although each woman's experience can be different, most women experience a decreased ability to become pregnant, as well as irregular and sometimes heavy menstrual periods.

The loss of female hormone production can cause both acute and chronic consequences in hormone-dependent tissues such as the brain, bones, heart, blood vessels, and skin, which ultimately places women at increased risk for osteoporosis, heart disease, urinary incontinence, acute burning or itching of the vulva or vagina, and painful sexual intercourse.

Menopausal symptoms due to estrogen deficits include memory problems, trouble finding words, inability to pay attention, mood swings and irritability, in addition to the more well known symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Changes in body or scalp hair or in skin tone may also occur. After menopause, 70% of women eventually develop cardiovascular disease, and 30% develop osteoporosis.

Currently, about 40 million American women are menopausal, a number which will grow dramatically in the next decade as the baby-boom generation reaches the age of menopause. Today, the average woman reaching menopause will probably live 30 or more years than was common 100 years ago, making the management of menopause, like that of aging in general, a medical and social issue.

The medical management of menopause is in its infancy. The goal is to improve the quality of the last third to one-half of a woman's life by preventing the harmful consequences of estrogen hormone deprivation, thus delaying or eliminating the need for medical treatment and nursing home care. Estrogen and progesterone replacement therapy decreases health problems and symptoms associated with menopause. In a recent study, the largest and longest clinical trial to examine this issue, postmenopausal women taking any of four regimens of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) gained significant amounts of bone mass.

If a woman is heavy vaginal bleeding, long intervals of spotting, or has gone more than two months without a period, she should talk to a health care professional as these can be symptoms of abnormalities of the uterine lining which are easily treated.16 It's a good idea to become familiar with typical symptoms by taking one of the many excellent on-line surveys that can help you better understand these natural processes.17

About Hormones

Synthetic chemical compounds in the environment, which mimic estrogen, are linked to a variety of developmental disorders and deformities. Estrogenic chemicals, which act like the female sex hormone estrogen (estradiol), may occur normally in nature in plants and in one's diet, while others are man-made such as diethylstilbestrol (DES), used in the past to prevent miscarriage and to promote growth in livestock and poultry.

Aside from natural menopause, another concern in hormone research is the growing exposure to synthetic environmental estrogens, which may be found in plastics or insecticides such as PCBs, DDT, dioxins, and furans. It's important to understand the effects of these compounds because they may remain in the body for prolonged periods of time.

Hormones are the "chemical messengers" of the body's endocrine system, which can be altered when chemical mimic hormone actions either trigger or block a response to the body's natural hormones. When this happens, the synthetic compounds then bind to the receptor. Some foreign chemicals interact with the estrogen receptor and produce estrogen-like effects on the development of the brain, male and female reproductive organs and breasts, causing a variety of disorders including overgrowth of the vaginal lining, premature breast development, feminization of male offspring and infertility. Environmental researchers were taken by surprise in recent years by the numbers of "feminized" males found among several wildlife species. The effects were finally traced to pesticides and other chemicals that behave like estrogens, but don't in any way look like them.

Much more information is needed to understand the adverse effects of these synthetic compounds. Endocrinology is advancing our understanding of hormones and the endocrine system and how they can affect human health.

Actions, Information & Opportunities to Help 
There are many websites -- both comprehensive and single-issue -- dedicated to informing and analyzing issues related to menopause and hormone research. Also listed below are resources that offer help, theoretical sociological works, cultural studies and multiple published news articles and campaign information pieces.