10 Surprising Health Risks that Happen After Menopause
You can’t control aging or the loss of your period—but you can take better stock of your health to reduce your risk of common post-menopausal health conditions.
Unfortunately, the longer your body goes without a menstrual period, the higher your risk of osteoporosis and fracture. Estrogen plays a big role in maintaining bone density. Some 20 to 30 percent of bone loss in women occurs in the first five years after menopause. “The risk of osteoporosis is very low before menopause, but post-menopausally, fractured hips and problems related to bone density are very likely,” Kevin Audlin, MD, a gynecologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, told everydayhealth.com. Perhaps, what’s worse, many postmenopausal women are in denial about their personal risk, according to an International Osteoporosis Foundation survey of women in 11 countries. And this means they don’t take steps to safeguard those bones, including eating a calcium-rich diet, performing weight-bearing exercises and strength-training, and limiting too much sodium as well as beverages (alcohol, soda, coffee) that leach calcium from bones.
Believe it or not, estrogen can even impact those pearly whites. The same process that leads to bone loss in the spine and hips can lead to the loss of the alveolar bone of the jaws. The result: loose teeth, tooth loss, and periodontal disease, which women are more susceptible to after menopause, according to a study published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. In addition, many postmenopausal women note dry mouth, pain, or burning in the gum tissue as well as altered taste for salty, peppery, or sour foods,” says JoAnn V. Pinkerton, MD, executive director of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). Now more than ever, good oral hygiene counts.
Sleep apnea is pretty common for postmenopausal women but, unfortunately, nearly 90 percent of women are not diagnosed, says Dr. Pinkerton, citing The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study. (Related: These are silent signs you could have sleep apnea.) Unlike men, women may not have the hallmark signs of the sleep disorder—snoring, pauses of breath, and excessive daytime sleepiness, for instance. Instead, they may experience such atypical symptoms as insomnia, morning headache, fatigue, tiredness, depression, and anxiety, she notes.
Diabetes hits women hard, and if you began menopause before age 46 or after 55, you’re even more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, according to the Women’s Health Initiative, a large national trial aimed at preventing disease in post-menopausal women. It’s hard to separate the effects of menopause from the effects of age and weight, says the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). But low estrogen, known to increase insulin resistance and trigger cravings, does play a role. What’s more, high blood pressure during pregnancy (preeclampsia), diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes), or polycystic ovary syndrome raise the risk even more. (Related: Pay attention to these PCOS symptoms.) The American Diabetes Association’s recommendation: Get tested every three years starting at age 45, especially if you’re overweight.
The estrogen your ovaries produce before menopause provides powerful protection for your heart. It increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol and lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol; dilates blood vessels so that blood flow increases; and prevents high blood pressure (a major cause of stroke) and cholesterol-laden plaque, which causes coronary heart disease. Makes sense then that a marked reduction of estrogen after menopause makes your risk of heart disease climb. One in eight women between the ages of 45 and 64 has some form of heart disease, and this increases to one in four women over 65, according to the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. “What’s more, the most common heart attack symptoms in women can be confused with everything from stress to a backache,” says Ellen Dolgen, Menopause Mondays blogger and author of the free eBook, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving During Perimenopause and Menopause. Luckily, being heart-smart (quitting smoking, eating a plant-based diet, exercising 30 minutes per day) has big preventative pays-offs.
Breast cancer is more likely to strike postmenopausal women than younger women. But in this case, you can blame your birthday instead of your estrogen levels. For a 30-year old woman, the chance of developing breast cancer over the next 10 years is one in 227. By age 60, the risk jumps to one in 28, according to the National Cancer Institute. “The biggest factor for breast cancer that you can reverse is weight gain after menopause,” Cynthia Geyer, MD, medical director of Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts, told canyonranch.com. To reduce your cancer risk, The American Cancer Society recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week. (Related: These habits can lower your breast cancer risk.)
That eight- to 10-pound weight gain common during “the change” can certainly be a trigger for women with a predisposition for or past history of disorder eating. And research backs it up: A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that the menopausal transition (with its hormonal fluctuations and body composition changes) is linked to increased eating disorders and negative body image.
Women account for more than 75 percent of the 50 million Americans living with autoimmune disorders—and, if you’re postmenopausal, you’re particularly vulnerable. Although the reasons are unclear, researchers found that the risk of developing autoimmune diseases—including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Graves’ disease, scleroderma, and thyroiditis—rises after menopause, according to a study in the journal Expert Review of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Women have two X chromosomes and defects in the X chromosome may make some women more susceptible to developing autoimmune disorders,” Pinkerton explains. Evidence suggests that plummeting estrogen levels play a role, too.
Claire Benoist for Reader's Digest
Urinary incontinence (involuntarily urine leakage when you laugh or sneeze) is particularly common after menopause. This is likely due to the thinning of the urethra (caused by declining estrogen) as well as weakened pelvic floor muscles (a result of vaginal childbirth), Pinkerton says. During this time, you’re also more prone to recurring urinary tract infections (UTI), according to a study from the Washington University School of Medicine. That’s because estrogen also helps keep bacteria out. Some preventative steps: Do those Kegels, drink plenty of fluids, and hit the ladies’ room before and after sex. These home remedies for UTI could help too.
Declining estrogen and increasing age strike again, as they make it harder for your liver to repair from the harmful effects of alcohol, infections, or excess fat. “Women are more susceptible to organ damage from alcohol,” Pinkerton says. Women also develop alcohol-induced liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and die from cirrhosis, which may all be related to estrogen according to animal research, she adds. If you’re born between 1945 and 1965, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting tested for hepatitis C, a virus that can wreak havoc on the liver. (Related: Do you know these signs of fatty liver disease?)