The menopause is that stage in every woman’s life when her periods stop, and she hasn’t menstruated in 12 consecutive months. During the lead up to periods stopping, also referred to as perimenopause or menopausal transition, a woman’s body goes through many hormonal and biological changes. For some this can be accompanied by physical and emotional changes. Although a range of symptoms are reported not all women are affected and everyone has a different experience.
Changing hormones bring big changes but can they also affect weight and body shape?
Menopause and the menopausal transition are natural processes that occur in women’s lives as part of normal aging, signifying the end of the reproductive life span with changes in the hormone’s oestrogen and progesterone. The average age of menopause is 51 years with about 4 years of irregular periods leading up to this event. With today’s average life expectancy, women are living around a third of their lives after the menopause.
So, how does it happen?
Baby girls are born with about 1-2 million eggs in their ovaries, with no new eggs made after birth. This amount declines slowly over the course of the reproductive lifespan, alongside a woman’s monthly cycles. At about the age of 37 the rate that a woman loses eggs speeds up rapidly, with almost none left at menopause. This finely balanced process is controlled by several hormones which all interact with each other throughout menstrual cycles. During the menopausal transition there are changes in the amount of these hormones being made, and the ovaries gradually lose function. Many women experience the discomfort of hot flushes, trouble sleeping, vaginal dryness and anxiety during the months and years leading up to their final period. Some have reported muscle aches, tiredness, lack of sex drive, increased appetite, cravings and putting on weight. It can be a bit of a dilemma figuring out if these symptoms are the direct result of the menopause or if they linked to something else. Is it that people are changing their lifestyle habits as they age? Are these symptoms simply a result of getting older?
“The rate that women gain weight doesn’t suddenly speed up over the menopausal transition- it remains steady. So, it would seem that the menopause is not responsible for midlife women putting on weight. However, when we start to explore body composition, the percentage of different tissue that makes up our bodies, things start to get interesting. Perimenopausal women are gaining fat mass at almost double the previous rate, whilst simultaneously losing muscle mass. Body shape is also changing over this time, with women’s waist sizes going up significantly.”
What can be done?
In Ireland, we know very little about women’s experiences of perimenopause and post menopause. There is a lack of research exploring how Irish women’s bodies are changing in terms of weight, body shape and body composition. This is the focus of a new PhD project in the SHE Research Group.
Miriam Murphy is a PhD candidate in the SHE Research Group. It is anticipated that findings from her research will inform future public health advice and support for women going through menopause.