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Maybe it’s menopause

Menopause—medically defined as a full 12 months without a period—is a different experience for every woman. Some women are plagued by hot flashes and night sweats, while others are lucky and barely get a flush.

The average age of menopause is 51, but it can happen much earlier or later. Look for these signs to see whether your “change” is on its way:

  • Menstruation changes. Erratic menstrual cycles often define the years leading up to your last period, a time known as perimenopause. You may find your periods are longer or shorter, heavier or lighter, or they come on suddenly and stop abruptly. While these are all normal changes as you age—thanks to varying levels of the female hormones progesterone and estrogen circulating in your body—you should speak with your healthcare provider to rule out any serious medical problems.
  • Hot flashes. The most notorious of all menopause symptoms, hot flashes are sudden feelings of warmth that typically radiate from your chest to your head. Decreasing estrogen levels can cause blood vessels to dilate, allowing more warm blood to flow up to the skin’s surface. The sudden flush causes your skin temperature to rise; you may even sweat, and as the sweat evaporates, you may feel chilled. The intensity and frequency of hot flashes varies from woman to woman, but in most cases they last from 30 seconds to several minutes and can happen day or night.
  • Sleep problems. Varying hormone levels can also take their toll on sleep. You may wake earlier than usual and have trouble getting back to sleep. You may find it harder to fall asleep in the first place. Night sweats, the nighttime equivalent of hot flashes, can also interrupt slumber.
  • Body changes. Fat deposits tend to redistribute during menopause. Your waist may get thicker, and you may notice an increase on the scale—on average, about 5 pounds. You may also experience a loss of muscle tone and loss of fullness in your breasts. Exercise and a healthy diet can help counteract these effects. Vaginal dryness may also occur at this time; try using a personal lubricant.
  • Moodiness. Around the time of menopause, many women find themselves more irritable, emotional and depressed. It’s not clear whether changing hormone levels, lack of sleep or life events, such as caring for aging parents or having adult children leave home, cause these feelings. But you can help relieve symptoms by following a healthy lifestyle and seeing your healthcare provider, who may suggest a medical treatment such as an antidepressant.