So often, women think of menopause simply as a time when their periods will stop. However, women’s risk of a number of diseases actually spike after menopause—which is usually between age 45 and 55—due to the hormonal changes in the body.
During menopause, estrogen levels drop significantly. This is what causes the body to stop ovulating (releasing eggs) and having a menstrual cycle. (Learn more about what happens to the body during menopause here.)
But the drop in estrogen has other effects, too. Here are the possible complications of menopause caused by the drastic changes in estrogen, according to Sonal Chaudhry, MD, endocrinologist at NYU Langone in New York City.
1. Cognitive changes.
“Menopause is a risk factor for dementia, but the vast majority of patients who are postmenopausal certainly don’t have dementia,” says Dr. Chaudhry. However, many women may notice more mild cognitive changes, like memory lapses and brain fog.
The cognitive changes may occur because there are numerous hormone receptors in the brain, according to Dr. Chaudhry. When estrogen levels decline, this lack of activity in the brain can create noticeable cognitive changes for some women.
However, Dr. Chaudhry reassures patients that these changes are usually temporary. “I do see in my patients that these mild cognitive changes that occur do tend to get better over time as the body adjusts,” says Dr. Chaudhry.
The most common disease that gets linked to menopause is osteoporosis. When estrogen levels drop, the body doesn’t absorb calcium as well. Additionally, the cells that break down bone become more active without the presence of estrogen.
Together, these changes cause the bones to lose their mass at a faster rate than before, resulting in brittle bones that can fracture more easily. (Learn more about how osteoporosis affects the body.)
3. Heart disease.
“Estrogen has favorable effects on your cholesterol profile, and without estrogen, you can have higher levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol,” says Dr. Chaudhry. Additionally, estrogen plays a role in relaxing the walls of the blood vessels, which means blood pressure may rise after estrogen levels drop.
Before menopause, women have a lower risk of heart disease than their male counterparts. After menopause, the risk of heart disease jumps up and matches the risk for men. Learn more about heart disease in women here.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help manage your other risk factors and help fend off chronic diseases. For example, staying physically active (especially strength training) helps keep bones strong to prevent osteoporosis, and quitting smoking can help keep your arteries healthy to avoid heart disease. Here are other heart-healthy habits to start today.
“This is a natural process. This is normal aging. If you’re suffering, we can help you,” says Dr. Chaudhry. “But a lot of it is about getting used to a new phase of your life, rather than holding on to this old image of who you used to be.”