Q: I've been having hot flashes, but I'm still in my 40s. How can I tell if I'm menopausal?
A: Hot flashes may feel like menopause's rather dramatic way of announcing its arrival (ta da!), but you aren't officially considered menopausal until you've gone 12 consecutive months without a period. Menopause is the stage in a woman's reproductive life (usually around age 50) when her ovaries stop producing eggs and the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Symptoms of The Change, though-like those hot flashes-come on gradually during perimenopause, a phase that can start as early as your 40s. If you're really curious about the status of your hormones, your doctor may suggest one of several blood tests, but none of them are definitive. "Estrogen and other hormones fluctuate so much during a woman's normal menstrual cycle, it's hard to tell if a certain level really indicates perimenopause," says Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of general obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine. It's also difficult to predict how menopause will affect you-some lucky women don't have any symptoms at all.
But experts do know that certain risk factors, such as smoking and being overweight, can make symptoms worse-and smokers have been shown to go through menopause up to two years earlier than women who don't light up. Add that to the long list of good reasons to quit.
"Women are lucky. We get a biological wake-up call to remind us that life does not go on forever. It is never too late to start an exercise program, lose weight, improve your diet, learn a language, take up piano, run a marathon…it feels so good!"
Did you know? Red wine triggers hot flashes in some women.