With Naomi Watts recently revealing her difficult journey after undergoing menopause at the early age of 36, we've seen a push for more openness around this topic which has been given the taboo treatment for far too long. Many women report starting menopause as early as their 20s and 30s – but what’s the cause of this early start? Premature menopause is more common than previously believed, and that’s why we’re keen to blow the lid off this condition affecting hundreds of thousands of Aussies. Here are 4 of the major causes, plus let's dive into Watts' all-too-common experience of shame and isolation.
“I found myself at 36 and perimenopausal, a word I didn’t even know about, and at the precipice of trying to start a family,” she said at The New Pause Symposium. “So I went into a complete panic, felt very lonely, very much less-than or like some kind of failure and what was I going to do?”
Head on over to InStyle Magazine to read more about Watts' experiences with menopause: @instylemagazine
Naomi Watts’ experience is common for women with premature menopause, many of whom feel insecure, incomplete or defective in some way. Much of this comes down to rigid societal expectations of women, leading to these dehumanising attitudes towards women who are post-menopausal. Watts knows these attitudes well, especially as someone living in the limelight while managing the unreasonable demands of women when it comes to childbearing. The beloved actress is just one of the countless women who underwent this critical change at an unexpectedly early age. At just 36, Watts started experiencing symptoms of perimenopause – the stage that precedes menopause where you’re still having periods. She says the change was a massive disruption to her plans to have children.
"In today’s world, pregnancies are happening all around us up to mid to late 40s. My doctor mentioned I might need a donor egg, and for whatever reason, there’s still societal stigma around not conceiving naturally,” Watts revealed to InStyle Magazine.
“So that kicked off a whole world of secrecy and shame, and I started looking into other possible alternative routes I could take."
Watts eventually welcomed 2 children, Alexander and Kai, in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Head on over to Watts' Instagram account for more on her family experience: @naomiwatts
But she acknowledges that the shame of early menopause lingered as her symptoms worsened. Hot flashes and night sweats left her feeling isolated from the experiences of her peers. As she revealed at The New Pause Symposium, she was acutely aware of this lack of support.
“I would try to test out the community of my friends and I was sort of met with nervous laughs and shrugging it off, and I thought 'Oh wow no one else is there, I better keep silent,' and that's how it was.”
Premature menopause characterises menopause that takes place before the age of 40, which differs from what’s known as early menopause, which takes place between the ages of 40 and 45. This condition, though woefully underrepresented in the media and education systems, affects 1 in every 100 women, while 5% of women will go through early menopause. With little awareness of this condition, many women spend years in the dark with distressing symptoms without knowing the cause. It’s time to bring premature menopause out of the shadows and into the light – this widespread condition affects many women, and if you’re going through this, you’re not alone.
But it’s not just the societal pressures that come with the condition, premature menopause can also cause a number of associated health risks, including raising the risk for premature death, osteoporosis and neurological conditions, along with increasing the chances for heart disease and mood disorders like depression. We’ve decided it’s time to unpack some of the risk factors for undergoing premature menopause and why it's not always down to your genetics. Let’s get into it.
One of the most common causes of premature menopause come down to your genetic lottery – for the majority of women, the onset age of menopause is written in the stars – well, technically, in your genes. The beginning age of a parent or close relative’s menopause can give you insight into your own onset date. Essentially, if your mum started menopause early, chances are, you will too. But, as we’ll get into in the following risk factor categories, it’s not always down to your genetics. Let’s take a look at a few of the other unexpected culprits involved.
2. Lifestyle choices and general health
There are a number of factors surrounding your lifestyle choices that can skyrocket your chance of developing premature menopause, along with general health status. Here are a few of the risk factors:
- Smoking: This addictive habit can disrupt estrogen production and, in some cases, lead to premature or early menopause as a result. Researchers found that long-term smokers had a significantly higher incidence of starting menopause earlier than their non-smoking peers.
- Low body mass index (BMI): Because estrogen is stored in our fat tissue, having too little fat can result in those estrogen stores running out quicker. Studies found that those with a BMI lower than 18.5 to have a 30% higher likelihood of developing premature menopause than those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9.
- Lack of sunlight: There is limited research which suggests that the sunshine vitamin plays an essential role in preventing premature menopause. The reason for this is down to the role of vitamin D in maintaining ovarian health – this nutrient supports follicular development during the menstrual cycle, along with helping to regulate hormones.
3. Autoimmune diseases
A host of autoimmune conditions can be a contributor to the development of premature menopause, and reason for this is twofold. Firstly, with autoimmune disorders, the immune system mistakenly targets healthy parts of our bodies, resulting in inflammation. Inflammation then disrupts ovarian health and hormone regulation. Diseases of the thyroid, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have been shown to increase the risk of ovarian failure, and therefore premature menopause, in a number of studies.
If you live with epilepsy, research suggests you may have an elevated risk for premature menopause. One study of a group of people found that 14% of the women with epilepsy had premature menopause, while only 1% of women in the general population had it. The verdict? This seizure disorder significantly increases your chances for undergoing premature menopause. The reason for this is that these seizures may disrupt the functionality of the pituitary gland and the hypothalamic system, both of which play a major role in hormone regulation. Researchers believe these disruptions could be to blame for premature menopause in those with epilepsy.
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