When you think of menopause, you probably associate it with hot flashes and mood swing—symptoms that are uncomfortable and irritating, but not life threatening. But did you know there are also a number of serious health conditions associated with menopause? These health dangers are less well-known, but just as common as hormonal symptoms, and can even be fatal.
If you are going through menopause or are post-menopausal, be on the watch for these six dangerous health conditions.
Osteoporosis—which actually means “porous bones”—is a disease that causes your bones to lose density, making them prone to fractures. Your body’s ability to turn calcium into bone tissue is affected by hormone levels in your body; higher levels of estrogen correspond with better bone health. During menopause, the dramatic estrogen decrease causes your bones to become more brittle and puts you at risk for osteoporosis. This is compounded by the fact that bone density naturally decreases with age.
To decrease your risk of osteoporosis, ensure you get plenty of calcium and vitamin D in your diet, and do weight-bearing exercises to strengthen the bones in your arms, legs, and hips.
2. Weight gain
Estrogen loss during menopause also causes you to lose muscle mass. Because your body burns calories in order to maintain muscle, losing muscle can cause corresponding weight gain.
Though gaining a few pounds is nothing to worry about, it’s important adjust your diet and exercise to compensate for lower estrogen levels. Otherwise, you may find yourself gaining an unhealthy amount of weight, which can lead to other health complications.
3. Heart Disease
A drop in estrogen can also cause cholesterol levels to fluctuate, leading to a dangerous health risk—heart disease. Before age 60, women are generally at a much lower risk of heart disease (when compared to men). After 60, menopause evens the playing field, and women become just as vulnerable to heart disease. The danger is even higher for women who experience significant weight gain during menopause or who use hormone replacement therapy.
Be sure to have your cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health checked regularly, and talk to your doctor about adjusting your exercise routine and diet to keep your heart healthy.
Menopause can also increase your risk of developing high blood pressure (i.e. hypertension), especially if you have a family history of hypertension or have suffered from heart trouble in the past. In fact, an estimated 70% of women in their 60s and 70s have high blood pressure. After age 75, that number rises to 80%.
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High blood pressure puts strain on the blood vessels going to and from your heart, increasing your risk of stroke, heart attack, and premature death. It can also cause kidney problems, sexual dysfunction, dementia, and trouble with your vision. Even if you feel healthy, it’s still important to talk to your doctor about your blood pressure—hypertension is often asymptomatic.
5. Vaginal dryness
As hormone levels drop during menopause, your vagina produces lower amounts of mucous and other natural lubrication. This can result in dryness and atrophy of the vaginal tissue.
Vaginal dryness can lead to bleeding, tearing, itching, burning sensations during urination, and pain during sexual intercourse. If left untreated, it can severely decrease quality of life and lead to bacterial or yeast infections. Luckily, there are a number of simple treatments, including using lubricants, taking black cohosh supplements, and increasing the amount of soy in your diet.
6. Urinary incontinence
One of the side effects of vaginal dryness and lowered estrogen levels is urinary incontinence, or problems controlling your bladder. As the muscles around your bladder weaken, you may find yourself leaking when you cough, sneeze, laugh, or exercise—this is called stress incontinence. You may also be at increased risk for urinary tract infections.
Though embarrassing, urinary incontinence is incredibly common, and can be easily managed. Your doctor can help you decide whether lifestyle changes, supplements, or medication is the right form of treatment.