Other Physical Changes Associated with Menopause
After menopause, estrogen and progesterone levels plummet. Although other parts of your body continue to produce some hormones, they cannot compensate fully for the loss of ovarian hormone production. The specific role of these hormones is treated in Chapter 11. Some of the major postmenopausal side effects are increased bone loss and your skin tissues becoming thinner and less elastic. Your organs and joints respond to diminishing hormones as well as to the wear and tear of living.
Catching Up with Men — Not Always a Good Thing
After menopause, women are just as likely to develop heart disease as men are. Your cardiovascular system misses those hormones, too, with their beneficial impact on HDL cholesterol and their inhibiting effect on LDL cholesterol. With the loss of protective hormones, your arteries become more susceptible to plaque buildup, and begin to narrow and lose elasticity. As a result, estrogen loss can contribute to heart disease.
Boning Up on Osteoporosis
Another important side effect of plummeting hormones is a rapid advance of the bone loss that began in your forties. In the first five years that follow menopause, women can lose as much as one-fourth of their bone density — a potentially deadly development. Bone fractures that develop as a result of osteoporosis can have life-threatening consequences. This bone loss slows down for most women within a decade or so of menopause, but without supplements or MHT, it continues throughout a woman's life. There are ways to minimize this bone loss and the dangers it brings, and you will learn about them in Chapter 15.
More Postmenopausal Changes
During your fifties and early sixties — the decades immediately following menopause — your body undergoes some inevitable changes resulting from the natural aging process. Your body is unique, and so are your family medical history, your lifestyle, and your individual health program. In general, here are the types of changes many women experience in the years that follow menopause:
Hearing loss can set in, due to the ear canal tissue's becoming thinner and drier. Many people have no hearing loss until they are in their sixties, but almost one-third of women over sixty-five report hearing problems. Keep this loss to a minimum by protecting your ears from loud noises. Wear earplugs when you mow the lawn and avoid sitting close to loud stereos and televisions. And get annual hearing checkups, so you know when your hearing loss reaches the you-need-a-hearing-aid stage.
Joints lose cartilage with age and connective tissue becomes less flexible and resilient, making arthritis and other types of joint pain more common in aging women. Exercise and weight control are critical factors in maintaining healthy joints.
Lungs become less elastic as we hit our mid-fifties, which can contribute to shallower breathing and, therefore, less oxygen in our bloodstream. Get plenty of aerobic exercise to keep your lungs pumping. If you're still smoking, quit now!
The brain loses mass and shrinks slightly with each passing year. As a result, women can face impaired cognitive functions as early as age seventy. Keep your body and mind active — participate in a regular aerobic exercise program, work crossword puzzles, learn to use the computer, visit with family and friends, read the newspaper, and travel. Life's pleasures are also your best weapon in keeping your mind alert and agile.
Digestion slows down as you reach your sixties, and food moves at a slower pace through your intestines. As a result, many postmenopausal women report problems with constipation. Eat plenty of whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetables, and drink plenty of water to combat this change in your digestive function and, you guessed it, exercise.
Living for the Rest of Your Life
These changes contribute to the challenges you face in maintaining your strength and health as you move through the postmenopausal years of your life. Though aging is inevitable, you have tremendous control over its effects. Menopause is great training for learning how to age because it demands that you pay attention to your body, make decisions, and take actions that can protect and nurture it throughout the many years ahead. Learning how to take control of your health and choices is worth the effort because menopause also can usher in a time of great freedom, personal exploration, and growth. How you manage the symptoms of perimenopause and the realities of aging that follow will determine your own postmenopausal experience. The remaining chapters of this book take a closer look at all the health issues that surround menopause, and offer simple, effective, ideas for managing your health and combating these issues — now and for the rest of your life.