If you menstruate, there will inevitably come a time in your life when you say goodbye and good riddance to periods for good. This is called menopause — the season of life in which a person permanently stops having periods and can no longer get pregnant.
Medically, menopause is defined as having no menstrual bleeding, including spotting, for 12 consecutive months. In the United States, the average age to reach menopause is 51. This age varies widely, though, generally occurring in a woman's 40s or 50s.
So, what exactly happens during menopause?
First, if you’re not there yet, don’t expect menopause to happen in a sudden overnight switch. It’s better to think of menopause as more of a slow and gradual transition period with 3 stages: perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. For most people, it takes years for these stages to run their course.
The first stage of the process, perimenopause, begins when your ovaries begin slowing down in the production of estrogen. Generally, this starts sometime in a woman's 40s, around 8-10 years before menopause, at which point the ovaries stop releasing eggs entirely. For some, perimenopause can begin in their 30s; however, early signs typically begin between the ages of 40-44.
When the menopause stage occurs, the ovaries have stopped producing most estrogen and no longer release eggs during ovulation. This means menstruation also ceases. While periods can become increasingly irregular during the perimenopause stage, a healthcare provider will not officially diagnose menopause until you’ve gone a full year without a period — spotting included. For most women, this happens between 45 and 55, with the average menopause diagnosis occurring at age 51.
The postmenopause phase officially begins once you’ve gone an entire year without having a period. Thankfully, during this stage, most people experience relief from the physical symptoms of menopause. During the post-menopause years, some women find that they still experience unpleasant symptoms after that final menstrual cycle, but symptoms do often get milder or disappear over time.
What are the symptoms of perimenopause?
Most often, women will start to notice symptoms during the initial perimenopause stage. When you find yourself entering that first phase, you may experience irregular periods, vaginal dryness, hot flashes and night sweats, chills, insomnia, mood changes (including depression and anxiety), weight gain, lack of sex drive, and more. Sounds fun, right?
The good news is, you don't have to suffer in silence. If any of these early menopause symptoms are causing you distress, it’s important to discuss it with your healthcare team. Menopause can bring about drastic life changes, and it’s completely normal and encouraged to seek out care to manage these symptoms when you need it.
Some symptoms may feel awkward or difficult to discuss, but fret not — when it comes down to it, OB/GYNs and health experts have seen it all, and are there to help create a care plan personalized to you during every stage of life.
Can you predict when menopause will start?
With the onset of menopause symptoms varying so vastly from person to person, it can feel frustrating to not have a real “answer” for when to expect your periods to stop. Unfortunately, while there is no method to pinpoint the age it will all begin for you, there are a few pieces of data you can use to make a good educated guess.
Genetics seem to play a big role in determining when your periods will stop for good. If you know the age your mother went through menopause, it can be a great predictive indicator for yourself. Numerous studies, including results published in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS), show that menopause is generally accepted to be influenced by family history — i.e., if your mother began experiencing perimenopause in her early 40s, you can expect that to be a likely time for your own symptoms to begin.
Amenorrhea and other reasons your period may stop
When it comes to a lack of periods, it can be expected during menopause, during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, or while taking some forms of hormonal birth control.
When your period stops outside of the expected “norms," there is very likely an underlying cause that needs to be addressed. When a person stops having periods unexpectedly during the reproductive years of life, this is called “amenorrhea” — and it’s always a good idea to schedule an appointment to consult with your doctor if you’re not sure what’s causing changes in your cycle.
Causes of amenorrhea can include a vast array of issues such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), issues with the pituitary gland, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), malnutrition or eating disorders, rigorous athletic training, and even times of high stress.
Menopause or otherwise, changes to your period warrant a discussion with your healthcare provider. Because there's no such thing as being over-prepared!
is a library worker and writer who lives in Arizona with her daughter, husband, and their dog, Peaches.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jessica Ryniec.