Men and women often confront similar problems as they grow older: weight gain, memory loss, insomnia and serious health problems like heart disease. Men pin these troubles on the passage of time. But according to recent research, women often point to menopause as their fall guy.
"Menopause is such a milestone that things get attributed to it that are really part of the [normal] aging process," says Katherine Sharkey, a physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Other than bothersome hot flashes, which occur when hormonal changes confuse the brain's temperature center, menopause is not directly responsible for medical problems or significant changes in the brain, researchers say.
- Sleep: Menopausal women sleep just as soundly as other women their age, according to St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. "Women in their 50s experience more disrupted sleep than women in their 20s," says Sharkey. "But it's not menopause, it's aging." More than one-third of older Americans suffer from insomnia.
- Memory: Despite its bad reputation, menopause doesn't adversely affect memory or the brain, according to a two-year study of some 700 Taiwanese women. Researchers suggest that the stresses and distractions of midlife may cause women to perceive a decline in memory power that does not really exist.
- Weight Gain: Menopause may deserve blame for that extra dress size. On average, women gain 12 pounds in the eight years following menopause, expanding waistlines and raising the risk for heart disease. The change is one that women can easily monitor and offset with small changes in diet and exercise, according to a University of Pittsburgh study.
- Hot Flashes: Stop smoking already! Women who haven't kicked cigarettes are more than twice as likely as nonsmokers to experience hot flashes, and their hot flashes are more severe, according to University of Maryland researchers. The study also found a link between obesity and hot flashes.
The lesson: Menopause can be a daunting hurdle, but it may not be as high as we think.