In your early 40s and randomly feeling steamy? According to a new study looking at the duration of hot flashes, they could be a sign of menopause … 10 years early. (Photo: Getty Images)
Think you have to suffer through only a few seasons of hot flashes during menopause, and then you’ll be on the other side? Not exactly. According to a new study published in JAMA International Medicine, in some cases, it might be more like 14 years.
In the largest study of its kind, researchers looked into the symptoms of a racially, geographically and ethnically diverse group of 1,449 women reporting frequent hot flashes. The median length of time that women endured the heat was 7.4 years.
However, half of the study subjects experienced hot flashes for a greater period, up to 14 years, and those who started hot flashes earlier in life had them for a longer time — which was the vast majority of women.
Only roughly 20 percent didn’t feel their body temperatures rise until menstruation had subsided completely and they had officially entered menopause, in which case they experienced a median of just 3.4 years of symptoms. But of the 80 percent who experienced hot flashes before they lost their periods entirely, the duration of symptoms was roughly 11.8 years. Ugh.
According to Taraneh Shirazian, MD, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, the results of this study are finally validating what docs see everyday. “I’m not at all surprised,” she tells Yahoo Health. “For years, we’ve been hearing menopausal symptoms last only around three years, but in practice, we’ve seen them last for about a decade.”
Hot flashes, in particular, are a burden. Affecting roughly 50 to 75 percent of women, according to Shirazian, they last only about 30 seconds each, but they can make women feel self-conscious, socially-avoidant and uncomfortable for years.
On average, menopause begins at age 51. However, Shirazian says, women can begin experiencing symptoms three years to a decade prior to complete loss of menstruation. So, according to these study results, women could start seeing issues beginning in their early 40s, or they could see symptoms last into their early 60s.
Why do women even feel added heat after their reproductive years? “As women get closer to menopause, which we define as one year with no period, the ovaries are starting to slow down,” she says. “These flashes are basically a change in hormones, coming and going as estrogen levels change.”
Although there’s no one fix, women have a few options for easing the pain, according to Shirazian. As an everyday solution, dressing smart is huge. “I always tell women to layer their clothes, so they can easily take things off as needed,” she says. “In addition, I’ve had multiple women in my practice use something called Cool-Off, which are wet towelettes infused with herbs. These seem to help relieve them right away.”
Lisa Keder, MD, the OB/GYN director at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, also prescribes behavioral changes to tackle symptoms. “These may lower the frequency of hot flashes,” she says. “Some common things I recommend are lowering room temperatures when possible, and avoiding triggers such as spicy food and stress.”
Although research is mixed on effectiveness, Shirazian says a few of her patients have used acupuncture to alleviate symptoms and upped their soy intake — though speak with your doctor before trying the latter to make sure it’s for you. Some of the women Keder sees have experienced improvement on the medications gabapentin and clonidine. Gabapentin is normally used to treat seizures, but seems to repress hot flashes, too. Clonidine is often used to lower blood pressure, and can also help ease that menopausal uncomfortableness. However, both these meds are hit and miss, so it’s a bit of trial and error.
The medications that seem to work best for the most women are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) according to both docs. “SSRIs like Paxil and Lexapro definitely do work,” Shirazian says. “These are basically low-dose antidepressants, and have been shown to reduce hot flashes by 60 percent.
Alleviating hormone swings at the source are also an effective choice. Hormone-replacement therapy has been around for years and has helped a lot of women — but it’s not without drawbacks. “Estrogen works,” Shirazian says. “Although, we’re seeing more and more studies indicating hormone-replacement therapy carries risks like blood clots, an increased risk of breast cancer, even a slight increase in ovarian cancer.”
This therapy is not right for every woman, but it might be right for some without a history of blood clots or cancers. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about which options might work best for treating your hot flashes — so you don’t have to suffer through a decade of symptoms without relief.
Keder says there is a silver lining associated with the long duration. “It is important to understand that, in general, hot flash frequency and intensity improves over time after the final menstrual period,”she says.
So, ladies, take heart.