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—Dr. Ekta Kapoor, Mayo Clinic
Perimenopause means “around menopause,” the time your body preps for the end of its reproductive years (careful, though—you can still get pregnant). This first stage can start as early as mid-30s, but usually begins in your mid- to late 40s. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride: Your levels of estrogen unevenly rise and fall, creating shorter or longer periods as well as a few menopause-like issues (think hot flashes, sleep problems, and vaginal dryness).
Technically, you’re in menopause after you’ve gone 12 consecutive months without your period (or if it stops permanently as the result of a medical treatment). While the average age is 51, “the change” can occur in your 40s or 50s. And though it’s a completely natural and totally normal process, the physical symptoms feel anything but. Once you’ve hit this stage, hot flashes, brain fog, sleep issues, mood swings, headaches, decreased libido, and joint pain become the norm.
Postmenopause begins once you hit the one-year mark from your final period—and is a permanent stage that lasts from that point onward. The good news: your earlier menopausal symptoms may gradually ease up (and hey, no more periods!). And the bad? Hot flashes, sleep issues, and vaginal dryness still affect some women. Thanks to a decline in your estrogen, this third stage may also include an increased risk of osteoporosis and heart disease, so it’s smart to consult your doctor to assess your risk—and help you make this half of life your best one.