Menopause — the very name evokes terror in many women and their partners. Traditionally and culturally viewed as a time of emotional mood swings and hot sweats, many women dread it. Although it causes cessation of the menstrual period, which is a welcome relief for some, it brings about a host of other difficulties when ovaries stop hormone production. Among those are uncomfortable hot flashes, insomnia, irritability, weight gain, and a higher risk for heart disease. It also signals that a woman is incapable of conceiving a child naturally, although it can still be achieved with the use of donor eggs through assisted reproductive therapies (ART). This end of fertility can be an emotional time for women, even if they don’t want more children. For many, it implies the end of their youth.
Few women look forward to menopause, especially the accompanying hot flashes. A a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine may not bring good news to those hoping for a quick escape of the unbearably warm, sweaty stage: A 17-year review of 1,449 women from a variety of ethnic, racial, and geographic groups (said to be the largest longitudinal such study to date) found that hot flashes can last up to 14 years for some women—and that the earlier they start in the woman’s life, the longer they may last, the New York Times reports.
Study co-author Dr. Nancy Avis says that if you don’t get hot flashes until after menstruation ceases, it is usually a good sign.
“If you don’t have hot flashes until you’ve stopped menses, then you won’t have them as long.”
There are also disparities among races about how long menopause lasts, according to the study. African-American women had the longest-lasting hot-flash symptoms, with a mean of 10.1 years, which was almost twice that of Asian women. The median number of years for Hispanic women was 8.9, while for non-Hispanic whites it was 6.5. Diet and exercise, as well as genetics and how many children a woman has, can also play a role.
There are ways to alleviate symptoms, but perhaps not stop them altogether. A woman in perimenopause (before menstruation fully stops, but hormone production is stopping) could take low-dose versions of birth control pills or even certain antidepressants. Additional suggestions from the National Institute on Aging: not smoking, sipping cool drinks when a flash is coming on, and dressing in layers. A physician can best advise if estrogen therapy is a safe alternative for women who wish to receive it.