What is the menopause?
The menopause occurs when a woman’s ovaries stop producing eggs each month and her periods stop. This happens as a result of normal/natural changes in sexual hormones that come with age.
Is the menopause different for women with Down’s syndrome?
Usually women with Down’s syndrome reach the menopause earlier than is seen in the general population. The average age for women to reach the menopause in the general population is 51 years old. For women with Down’s syndrome the average age to reach the menopause is 46 years old but it can happen up to ten years earlier than in the general population.
What are the symptoms?
Women with Down’s syndrome will go through the same stages and experience the same symptoms as any other woman as the body stops producing eggs and the hormones needed to reproduce.
There are three stages (known as peri-menopause, the menopause and post-menopause). The menopause is said to have taken place if a woman has not had a period for 12 months or more. At any time in these stages she may experience any of the following symptoms:
- Hot flushes
- Aches and pains
- Weight gain and food cravings
- Depression and mood swings
- Changes in skin and hair condition
Often the emotional symptoms of the menopause will be dismissed as challenging behaviour caused by the woman’s learning disability, rather than being correctly diagnosed. This difficulty can be compounded by the fact that women with Down’s syndrome often have problems describing their symptoms. They are often not aware of a “hot flush”; being unable to tell the difference between a flush and feeling hot due to the weather, for example. The better informed the woman is the better she will be able to recognise her own symptoms, and the easier a diagnosis will be. It is therefore essential that women with Down’s syndrome be educated about what will happen to their bodies as they get older, before it begins to affect them. Often people with a learning disability don’t “pick up” this sort of information socially as other people would, so the information given must be clear and unambiguous.
As menopausal symptoms can be so varied, if a woman of this age group has a change in her level of functioning a general medical assessment to rule out other medical causes is important, including checking thyroid functioning and for depression.
Most women will not need treatment for the menopause but if a woman has troubling symptoms her GP may recommend treatment such as hormone replacement therapy.
As a natural alternative to HRT, a healthy and balanced diet may help when women are experiencing menopausal symptoms. As well as minimising weight gain and reducing food cravings, eating the right things can reduce tiredness and hot flushes and help the menopausal woman to maintain an emotional equilibrium. As a general rule she should try to steer clear of highly processed (junk) and salty foods and eat a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables. Particularly beneficial are those foods that contain high levels of natural plant oestrogens. The most important of these is soya, which can be found in soya beans and soya products like tofu, miso, soya milk and soya yoghurt. Also beneficial are nuts and seeds, pulses like chickpeas, lentils, aduki and mung beans, as well as apples, cherries, plums, rhubarb, cranberries, broccoli, carrots, french beans, peas, potatoes, and mushrooms. Soya can also be taken in supplement form. Visit your local health food shop for more information. For those suffering from hot flushes, cutting down on spicy foods, hot drinks and alcohol may help.