Will You Have Your Mother's Menopause?

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Sandra Gordon is dreading menopause. The 46-year-old from Weston, Conn., watched her mother's memory falter in her mid-50s, due to changing hormone levels. "Every time I get my period I say to myself, ‘Yes! I'm so relieved!' " says Gordon. She's not alone. Many women recall their mothers' hot flashes, sleepless nights, or unexpected mood swings—not to mention thinning hair, sagging skin, and wrinkles—with apprehension.

But hearing your mother's account of menopause can create a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, says women's health expert Christiane Northrup, MD, the author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause. "One of my patients said to me, ‘My mother always told me the best years of her life started after menopause and therefore I looked forward to it and never had a single problem.' Another told me, ‘My mother told me this is the worst thing that can ever happen to you and I'm terrified,' " she says.

Either way, your mother's menopause isn't always a predictor of what your experience will be. It's not all hereditary, and there are a few things you can do to make your own transition easier.

Predicting the future
Menopause is defined as the point in a woman's life when she has stopped menstruating for at least a year. The period of time leading up to menopause is called perimenopause, during which women undergo some pretty drastic hormonal changes and may have irregular periods. Most women start perimenopause somewhere between ages 39 and 51. It generally takes around 5 years from the start of perimenopause for a woman to stop menstruating.

Genetic factors play a role in this timing: If your mother and other close relatives had an early or late menopause, you probably will too. But your environment and lifestyle choices will play a role as well. For example, you might have an earlier menopause if you smoke, or if you live at a high altitude.

Researchers are currently studying a simple blood test that may predict when a woman will reach menopause. Other blood tests have been for a number of years, but with little credibility, says Margery L.S. Gass, MD, executive director of the North American Menopause Society. While scientists search for the genetic markers that may one day help better predict the big change, that day is still far off. "In terms of trying to tell where a woman is in her transition," says Dr. Gass, "right now, we're not there."

And, in good news for women who dread their mom's menopause, when it comes to actual symptoms, genetics aren't a strong predictor, says Dr. Gass. "Just because your mother had a difficult experience that does not mean that you necessarily will."

A number of healthy daily habits may help you avoid some of the worst parts, although the research behind how and why lifestyle changes affect menopause isn't definitive.

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Lead Writer: Sarah Klein
Last Updated: July 19, 2010

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