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Why Menopause is Different for Women of Color, According to a Birmingham Specialist

By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times

Menopause, the time that marks the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle, can be different for women of color, according to Tomeka Roberts, M.D., a GYN with Ascension St. Vincent’s Women’s Health in Birmingham

One reason could be socioeconomic causes and stressors, she said. In addition, results from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) show that women of color are more likely to start their transition to menopause earlier, and it can last longer. Findings also indicate that women of color report more intense symptoms, especially hot flashes and vaginal discomfort.

Asked why women of color experience menopause differently, Roberts, who specializes in gynecology, said, “We do not know why it is longer. Some studies think it is due to socioeconomic causes and stressors unique to women of color.”

These stressors can include lower socioeconomic status, lack of access to health resources, and living in disadvantaged environments, according to Chorus Health Inc. 

What is Menopause?

As a woman ages, the reproductive cycle, which functions continuously from the onset of puberty, begins to slow down and prepares to stop.

“Menopause is when [a woman has not] had a cycle in a year. The typical age is around 51 or 52, but it can be earlier in African Americans,” said Roberts.

Studies have shown that some women, particularly Black women, can reach menopause in their late 30s or early 40s.

According to Roberts, as menopause nears, the ovaries make less of a hormone called estrogen. When this decrease occurs, a woman’s menstrual cycle, or period, starts to change, usually becoming irregular and then stopping.

Physical changes can also happen as a woman’s body adapts to different levels of hormones. During menopause, women may experience a broad range of symptoms, including hot flashes, night sweats and/or cold flashes, vaginal dryness (which can cause discomfort during sex), urinary urgency, insomnia, emotional changes, and more. Several factors can play a role in how menopause affects each woman, including whether she smokes, how much she exercises, her family history, or the amount of stress in her daily life.

While most women will experience menopause symptoms, studies find that they may occur at an earlier age and be more intense in women of color. It is important for women of color to not ignore the signs or symptoms of menopause, no matter the age. Because women of color are more likely to enter menopause earlier, they are at greater risk for adverse health outcomes later in life.

Veiled in Silence

Menopause is a natural event that will happen to more than half of the population, but it still remains veiled in silence. The discussions around menopause are already few and far between.

“Menopause is not talked about regularly because some physicians do not want to or know how to treat it. Women think it is just something they have to go through, and it is part of getting older,” said Roberts.

In many conversations about menopause, the experiences of women of color are left out. Asked why women of color and physicians aren’t speaking out about menopause, Roberts said, “Women of color can go through menopause a lot earlier than others, so their concerns are sometimes dismissed, or physicians are not aware that [certain health concerns] could be due to menopause at an earlier age.”

Making Menopause Easier

Here are five steps for an easier menopausal transition:

  1. Research. Understand that menopause is a natural event that will happen to half of the population and find out the unique ways it affects women of color. For instance, find out ways to deal with menopause at a young age, which often occurs in women of color.
  2. Make Healthy Choices. Eat healthier foods and stop smoking. Smoking is also linked to heart disease, cancer, and strokes, some of the leading causes of death among African Americans.
  3. Make an Appointment Just for Menopause. Find a GYN who is confident in their ability to counsel patients about menopause. When you visit, be prepared with a list of symptoms you would like to discuss. Also, learn more about natural remedies and treatments for menopause relief.
  4. Get Moving to Reduce Stress. Find a physical activity you enjoy. Consider doing some type of exercise for 30 to 45 minutes a day. This is a great way to get your heart pumping. Exercise may also help prevent heart disease, ease hot flashes, boost mood, and support healthy weight management to help reduce the effects of stress.
  5. Have a Positive Attitude. Menopause is a natural part of life, but you don’t have to let it control you. You can take control of menopause by arming yourself with knowledge and maintaining a positive outlook.

To learn more about menopause or to schedule a visit with a doctor at Ascension St. Vincent’s Women’s Health, call 205-939-7800 or visit ascension.org 

Updated on 6/9/2022 at 10:48 a.m. to clarify Dr. Roberts’s title.