The average age of menopause in developed worlds including the UK is 51. Premature menopause is defined as menopause before the age of 45 and can affect women as young as their teens. It's sometimes also called premature ovarian failure (POF). Premature menopause means that a woman's ovaries stop producing eggs much earlier than what's considered average which can be emotionally distressing if a woman wishes to become pregnant, especially if the condition occurs during what are generally considered the fertile years.
A woman who is experiencing POF or premature menopause will have similar symptoms to women experiencing menopause at the traditional age. She will have irregular or missed periods. The periods that she does have will be different than usual and can be heavier or lighter. The sudden drop in estrogen in the body may cause a sudden feeling of warmth that's generally felt over the upper body. These are referred to as hot flashes.
Sexual intercourse may become uncomfortable since the secretions of the vagina will be reduced. The vagina may also become less flexible and thinner. Lubricants may be required during sexual intercourse to make the act pleasurable. Women undergoing premature menopause often have a decreased sex drive. Another symptom is dry skin, mouth and eyes. Incontinence sometimes happens because of bladder irritability or loss of bladder control. The dramatic change in hormones can also cause significant emotional changes ranging from depression to mild irritability.
There are primary and secondary causes of premature menopause. Primary causes are those caused by an autoimmune disease, chromosome abnormalities or enzyme deficiencies. In these cases menstruation never starts because the ovaries are poorly developed, were never there in the first place, or are unable to function. Secondary causes mean that ovarian function stops early because of a specific reason like removal or damage of the ovaries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy or an infection like mumps or tuberculosis.
Sometimes no cause can be found for the premature failure of the ovaries. Some studies suggest there's a low genetic connection. Women who come from a family with a history of premature menopause are more likely to experience it. Doctors suspect that it may be due to the number of egg cells that get developed in the ovaries when a female baby develops in utero. It could also be the rate that egg cells are lost which could be connected to genetics.
Potential Health Problems
The lowered estrogen levels in premature menopausal women can increase her risk of osteoporosis, colon and ovarian cancer, tooth loss, cataract formation and periodontal (gum) disease. Women with regular menopause have the same risks but their risks are lower because they already spent most of their lives enjoying the protective benefits of estrogen development.