Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

What’s In A Name?

March 27th, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

This month an important Sage research journal, Menopause International, “the flagship journal of the British Menopause Society (BMS),” changes its name to Post Reproductive Health. The Co-Editors of this journal are quoted in talking about this name change:

“Women’s healthcare has been changing dramatically over the past decade. No longer do we see menopause management only about the alleviation of menopausal symptomatology, we also deal with an enormous breadth of life-changing medical issues. As Editors of Menopause International, we felt that now is the time for the name and scope of the journal to change; thus moving firmly into a new, exciting and dynamic area. We wish to cover Post Reproductive Health in all its glory – we even hope to include some articles on ageing in men. Our name change is a reflection of this development in scope and focus.”

This name change may seem very insignificant to most people but, for me, a change in name signifies major steps in conceptual thinking, research practice, and (potentially) everyday health care. While I have some problems with the new name (I’ll get to those in a minute), the idea that menopause researchers and practitioners are beginning to see menopause as part of a broader life course transition is phenomenal. It signifies the willingness of many in the business of studying and treating menopause to think more broadly about reproductive aging. It also indicates that many now understand that menopause is not necessarily the “endpoint” of or “final frontier” in one’s reproductive health care needs. Perhaps it also means that we might acknowledge that perimenopausal symptoms are more than single, isolated, “fixable” events and that they may be related to larger, long-term bodily changes. The very idea that “post reproductive health” is important is one that I support and advocate, and I see this as evidence of the realization that there is life after menstruating and having babies. What’s more, the re-branded journal seeks to include research on men’s health too, perhaps signifying that researchers and practitioners acknowledge the sometimes non-gendered aspects of “reproductive” or “post-reproductive” health. Everyone needs health attention, no matter what their life course stage.

What I can still critique about the name change, though, is that the new name of this journal suggests that menopause and other midlife or aging stages are thought of as “post”-reproductive. In my opinion, it is really that we live on a reproductive continuum, that we are never really “post” anything, that prior life stages always continue to affect us and that there are not strict endpoints to the menopausal transition in the way that the word “post-reproductive” might suggest. Reproductive aging as a transition could take as much as 30 years or more, and women report still having signs and symptoms of “menopause” into their 60s and beyond. According to existing research our “late” reproductive years begin in our 30s and don’t end until….what? our 60s? our 70s? The word “post-reproductive” suggests an “end” that maybe doesn’t really exist ever. Here is a link to an article I wrote on this idea of the elusive “end” to menopause, and I think it is important to think about how the word “post” may not be the best way to describe how we live our midlife and older years. We may still have “reproductive” health needs way into our 70s, 80s, and beyond, so how can we think of ourselves as “post” anything?

With this said, however, I still am very happy to see the current name change of the journal, Post Reproductive Health, because I believe it signifies a very important change in the right direction, and I hope to see many more moves like this as we contemplate what midlife and aging health really is.

A Letter to My Mom: I am Sorry I Was A Brat

February 17th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Photo courtesy someecards.com

Dear Mom,

I owe you an apology.

Remember when you were perimenopausal (or as we called it, “going through menopause”)? Remember when you experienced hot flashes? And remember when you did, how we, your loving family, either 1) ignored 2) trivialized or 3) mocked you? Your hot flashes were a constant source of humor around our house and I recall you joining the fun.

But I am betting that while you were yukking it up, you felt lonely and misunderstood. I think you were just ‘being a good sport’ because what choice did you have?

You deserved better.

I admit that until recently, until I began hotflashing myself, I forgot about your transition and how we responded to it. But now that I am living with my own body thermostat on the fritz, I get it.

Now that I am consumed by cycles of heat and chill with no warning, I am having a major A HA ! moment. Now that I find myself waking in the night, my pillow wet, my face wetter, my sleep disrupted, I am time traveling to our sunny kitchen on 2nd Street—you: flapping your blouse, face flushed. Me: rolling my eyes.

I feel badly that I did not appreciate that this process is HARD. I feel badly that I made fun of you, thinking you just a silly old woman whining about something meaningless.

In short, I was a total brat.

Sure. I did not have models for compassionate support. It seems that the discourse of peri/menopausel has two nodes 1) joking  2) patholgizing—another distorted binary that fails to capture the complexity of human experience.

I know that today, struggling through my own perimenopause, I need some simple understanding. I am normal. This is normal. AND this normal reproductive transition can suck to high heaven.

While, we don’t need to stop the clocks or call the midwife, I would like some acknowledgement (minus the sexist aging jokes, please) that doesn’t make me  (or my body) the butt of a joke.

You deserved better when it was your time, Mom, and I am so sorry you didn’t get it.

Love, Chrisi

Symptoms are Demeaning….and Feminine?

January 31st, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

According to a recent piece in The Times, a reputable English newspaper, symptoms are demeaning AND feminine. More specifically, the article reports on the prostate cancer experiences of Sir Michael Parkinson, or “Parky,” a famous British talkshow host. Parkinson reveals his harrowing experience of getting prostate cancer treatment and its “grueling” side-effects. While the treatments worked, they apparently produced menopause-like symptoms (hot flushes and weight gain) that reminded him of “how women feel when they are going through menopause.” Parkinson is quoted directly as saying, “In a sense you become a woman. I’m getting fitted for a bra next week!” The reporter goes on to say “he’s joking but he’s also deadly serious.” The “menopausal” symptoms that Parkinson had during his prostate cancer treatments are also described as “demeaning” in the same paragraph.

Parkinson is a major public figure in the UK, with significant media influence. I’m certain that this article was read by many as a result, and it makes me wonder about the far-reaching impact of the negative characterizations made about both women and bodily symptoms in this article. When I read this article, I find the equation of symptoms and femininity problematic, for lots of health conditions that produce bodily changes and sensations are not only experienced by women. Experiencing a hot flush or hot flash, while often attributed to menopause, is not menopause-specific all of the time. You can have hot flushes from exercising hard, from the flu, from medications that treat a range of diseases, or when you’re embarrassed. You can have weight gain at midlife (or any time of life for that matter) for a variety of reasons unrelated to menopause. Both the equation of women with symptoms and the definitions of symptoms as negative and “demeaning” show exactly how little progress we have made in eradicating gendered ideologies that harm us. Women are equated with their bodies and seen as lesser than men because of this equation. Men are supposed to be able to rise above their bodily functions, signs, and symptoms and live the life of the mind. Thus, when men experience a symptom they must rid themselves of it because, oh, the horror, they might be “like women” if they have to pay attention to their bodies at all. Research studies show quite often that women are ignored by doctors when they report a long list of symptoms and are not given the treatments they need to ease those symptoms as much as men are, because doctors learn to assume that women are just overreacting. Symptoms are not real if reported by women, studies suggest. Yet, when men experience symptoms and report them they are treated for them more often, especially when they report things such as pain. I interviewed a woman once who told me that “symptoms are always negative” and I wonder if that is partially because of the equation of symptoms with femininity and women’s bodies.

I am certain that it was difficult for Parkinson to undergo treatments for his prostate cancer. I also know that hot flushes and weight gain are never comfortable for people, especially when they seem uncontrollable. BUT, when we go on to support the characterization of symptoms as “what women feel” and then in the next breath say that those symptoms are “demeaning,” we head right into reifying gender ideologies that harm every single one of us. Men should be able to notice changes in their bodies without feeling “feminine.” We should recognize bodily symptoms as part of both health and illness that everyone experiences. And women should not have to be defined only by the fact that they go through certain reproductive transitions that include symptoms. I know Parkinson is perhaps from a generation that might still be holding tightly to gender ideologies that do not make much sense for the contemporary world, but I hold the reporter responsible for some of the characterizations made in this article, too. It is 2014, and aren’t we supposed to be more progressive than this? Because you experience a hot flush you should be fitted for a bra? In the YouTube video that appears along with this post, Parkinson himself admits “men are silly about their health.” I’ll say. But comments reported in the recent Times article go way past being silly.

Recursiveness

January 3rd, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

A few years ago, in response to an article of mine on menopause, an editor encouraged me to think of women’s reproductive lives as “recursive”. Little did he know how much his comment would affect my thinking about women’s lives and life in general. Recursiveness is a common sense concept, but something we don’t often think about. But, especially in light of the “new” year and the sense that we all hold that we are beginning 2014 as if we have a clean slate, I decided to blog here about recursiveness. This is very relevant for anyone thinking about menstruation and menopause, which is why I write about it here.

If you look up the word “recursive” in a dictionary, you find this as one of several definitions:
“of, relating to, or constituting a procedure that can repeat itself indefinitely…”
— re•cur•sive•ly adverb
— re•cur•sive•ness noun

If you think about reproductive events like menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, childbirth or anything else, we often think of them one at a time, almost in isolation. But, they’re not isolated at all and many of them have a tendency to repeat because of the cyclical nature of all life processes. In addition, reproductive events are tied to each other in meaning and we think of them only in relation to what comes before and they only mean things in relation to what other events meant to us in the past or what situations we are dealing with in the present. Thus, potentially when two menstrual periods or other reproductive events occur, we might tend to think of them similarly, approach them similarly, and/or compare them even when they could be very different, because the first experience colors the second and beyond. To think that we might approach each reproductive event as it comes as something new and unrelated to past events or experiences is almost silly, for the past always colors our perceptions of things even if it shouldn’t. Likewise, if we think of 2014 as a brand “new” chunk of time that represents a blank slate, we are also fooling ourselves (perhaps we do so knowingly though). We can make different decisions or act somewhat differently if we’d like, but we approach 2014 with our past in mind and potentially may repeat our attitudes and behaviors in the future automatically. Even if we live different experiences in the new year and very purposely separate ourselves from past attitudes and behaviors, we might think of our new attitudes and experiences in relation to other past experiences, making attitudes and behaviors recursive in meaning at least (even if our newer experiences are not the same as in the past).

I have written here about similar themes in the past, and I do really like thinking about the recursiveness of our experiences. My brother is a forester and farmer and always talks about nature’s cycles and tendency towards repetition, but I think we can think about recursiveness in much broader terms than that too. Recursiveness is a powerful idea and it makes a lot make sense in the world. It doesn’t mean we can’t experience things differently over time. Thinking about transitions like menopause makes us realize that things (like menstruation or fertility) are definitely not the same over time and maybe stop repeating and cycling. But, in our minds, we might expect things to repeat indefinitely (and therefore emotionally wrestle with the physiological changes we experience because we don’t expect change). Previous experiences might repeat in the identities we continue to hold dear or in the ways in which we think about reproductive transitions or any other changes in our lives, even when the experiences themselves change.
As we approach this new year, I propose we acknowledge recursiveness as a real thing.

Happy new year, everyone.

Cause and Effect

November 11th, 2013 by Paula Derry

Does menopause cause an increase in health problems ranging from heart disease to bone disease to psychological depression? One issue is that many of these claims have been criticized as being overblown both by professionals within the medical community and by critics outside it. Another issue is that when problems are linked to menopause, the suggested solution has often been estrogen supplements (postmenopausal hormone therapy)—since after menopause a woman’s body produces far less estrogen—rather than seeking more complex causes, solutions, and mechanisms.

For example, although heart disease has many causes, during the 1990s many professionals recommended hormone therapy as being uniquely effective at preventing heart disease. At one time, a middle-aged woman who was depressed ran the risk of a professional assuming that she was suffering from a hormone imbalance without a careful evaluation of her distress.

While there is more attention today to looking at what causes problems and the best way to solve them, there is still a fundamental lack of understanding of basic processes. Even if menopause is linked to a problem, that doesn’t in itself tell us the mechanism by which this happens, or the best way of solving the problem. Suppose, for example, it had turned out that research established (it hasn’t, but suppose it had) that a woman’s risk of heart disease increases because of menopause. If this was because changes in estrogen levels result in changes in a woman’s metabolism, then lifestyle changes might solve the problem by revving up her metabolism even though a hormonal change caused it. Further, some other cause might be present. Perhaps some women who feel old or are busy become less physically active at midlife. Or perhaps some women who are depressed start eating more dessert. Or perhaps (as seems to be the case) heart disease risk simply increases as people get older.

For a wide variety of problems related to menopause, it would be great if more research looked at basic causes, complex mechanisms, and individual differences.

What Menopausal Women Want to Hear

November 7th, 2013 by Heather Dillaway

 

Photo Courtesy of Heather Dillaway

I’ve been thinking a lot about the messages that women do or don’t get at menopause.

Because of this, I decided to come up with a list of things that women would love to hear at menopause (or perimenopause, if we are talking about when women experience the majority of their signs and symptoms).

I’ve divided my list into things that they might want to hear that are true, and things that they might want to hear but might not be true yet (but should be). I’d love to hear reader comments on this division and any ideas about what I’ve forgotten that should be on my lists!

 

Things Menopausal Women Would Love to Hear That ARE True:

1. It’s okay to be glad to be done with menstruation, the threat of pregnancy, the burdens of contraception, etc. It’s also okay to use the menopausal transition to question whether you really wanted kids, whether you had the number of kids you wanted, and whether you’ve been satisfied with your reproductive life in general. It’s normal to have all of these thoughts and feelings.

2. You’re entering the best, most free part of your life! But, it’s okay if it doesn’t feel like that yet.

3. Menopause does not mean you are old. In fact, potentially you are only half way through your life.

4. You are not alone. Lots of people have the experiences you do. You are normal!

5. I understand what you’re going through. (Or, alternatively, I don’t completely understand what you’re going through but I’m willing to listen.)

6. It’s okay to be confused and frustrated at this time of life, or in any other time of life!

7. You’ve had an entire lifetime of reproductive experiences, and this is simply one more. How you feel about menopause is probably related to how you’ve felt about other reproductive experiences over time, however. It might be helpful to reflect back on all of the reproductive experiences you’ve had to sort out how you feel about menopause.

8.  Talk to other women you know. Talking about menopause helps everybody.

9. Menopause and midlife can be as significant or insignificant as you’d like them to be. For some women, these transitions mean very important things but, for others, they mean little. Whatever it means to you is okay.

10. Researchers are working hard to understand this reproductive transition more fully.

 

Things Menopausal Women Would Love to Hear But Might NOT Be True:

1. This is guaranteed to be your last menstrual period. You are done! (Or, a related one: You’ve already had the worst signs and symptoms. It gets better from here on out!

2. Signs and symptoms of menopause will be predictable and will not interrupt your life.

3. No one will think negatively of you or differently about you if you tell them you’re menopausal.

4. There are no major side effects to hormone therapies or any other medical treatments you might be considering.

5. Doctors will be able to help you, and will understand your signs and symptoms, if you need relief.

6. Leaky bodies are no problem! No one will care if your body does what it wants whenever it wants.

7. Partners, children, coworkers, and others will completely understand what you’re going through.

8. Middle-aged women are respected in this society, and it is truly a benefit to be at this life stage.

9. There is a clear beginning and a clear end to this transition.

10. Clinical researchers are researching the parts of menopause that you care about.

 

In my opinion, things that menopausal women would love to hear but might not be true speak to many of our societal norms and biases. Menopausal women are in a tough spot when it comes to norms about bodies, aging, gender, etc. Items on this second list also speak to menopausal women’s difficulties in accessing quality health care or getting safe relief from symptoms when needed. The latter list also notes the potential disconnects between research findings and women’s true needs during this transition. The first list represents what we should probably tell women and represents the kinds of supportive comments they might want to hear while going through perimenopause in particular.

Brisdelle for Hot Flashes

October 14th, 2013 by Paula Derry

The North American Menopause Society held its annual meeting Oct. 9 to 12. An article posted a few days earlier stated that hot flashes would be “extensively discussed” at the meeting because “temperature control is such a preoccupation for menopause.” There would be 13 presentations on low-dose paroxetine mesylate (brand name Brisdelle), “the first nonhormonal treatment for hot flashes to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.” A link was provided to an article about the FDA approval.

The article is titled “Brisdelle okayed as first nonhormonal Rx for hot flashes.”  However, the content of the article states: “The first nonhormonal drug for hot flashes associated with menopause was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today despite an agency advisory committee having rejected it as too much risk for minimal benefit. …The FDA’s Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs voted 10 to 4 against recommending approval. …The FDA is not obliged to follow the advice of its advisory committees, but …it usually does.” 

With regard to risks, the same article states: “Critics said the drug’s minimal superiority to a placebo did not outweigh the risk for suicide ideation and osteoporosis, 2 adverse events associated with paroxetine. …The drug’s label features a boxed warning about the increased risk for suicidality. The label also warns clinicians that paroxetine mesylate can reduce the effectiveness of the breast cancer drug tamoxifen if taken together, increase the risk for bleeding, and comes with the risk for serotonin syndrome.” 

Risks might be worth it if they are unlikely and there is a large benefit. In testing paroxetine did better than placebo, so it was accurate to state that the medication had an effect. However, the absolute advantage of the medication compared to placebo was small. For example, at week 4 of the study, 60% of the women taking the medication reported relief but so did 48% of the women taking a placebo; at 12 weeks, 47.5% vs. 36.3%.

Some clinicians with patients with severe hot flashes, and some women themselves, have had the experience that serotonin reuptake inhibitors (the class of drugs that includes Brisdelle) have worked. The article on the FDA approval speculates on why the medication was approved: “In a news release, the agency seemed to explain why it overrode the recommendation of its advisory committee when it came to paroxetine mesylate. ‘There are a significant number of women who suffer from hot flashes associated with menopause and who cannot or do not want to use hormonal treatments,’ said Hylton Joffe, MD, director of the Division of Bone, Reproductive and Urologic Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.”

For women with severe hot flashes, an effective treatment is needed. Yet, surely, a treatment with potential side effects should pass a high bar before being FDA approved.

What Is Holistic Health?

September 16th, 2013 by Paula Derry

What is a holistic approach to health? To me, this is something different than using bio-identical hormones, practicing yoga, or seeking help from an acupuncturist. Sometimes, practitioners using complementary/alternative or integrative-medicine methods have as entrenched a disease model of the reproductive system as anyone else. For example, some practitioners talk about “treating” menopause itself, especially about treating “hormone imbalances” caused by the “shutdown” of the ovaries, accepting a theory that menopause is a disease or intrinsically unhealthy. A similar idea may be applied to normal changes through the menstrual cycle or premenstrual changes that are distressing.

To me, a holistic or integrative approach involves attitudes or understandings about what health is. Feeling healthy is the baseline against which dis-ease or disease contrasts. Sometimes disease results from just-one-thing (like a hormone imbalance), but, more typically, many factors are involved. For example, menopause isn’t unhealthy in and of itself, but sometimes unhealthy or distressing complications of menopause develop based on many factors. For example, treatments for menopause-related, premenstrual, or other reproductive issues often involve lifestyle changes (in diet, activity, etc.) in addition to whatever other approaches are used.

Here is a copy of a handout I use to provide an introductory overview of holistic health:

What Is Holistic Health?
Paula S. Derry, Ph.D.

Health is more than not having any diseases.

The World Health Organization defines health as “complete physical, mental and   social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Feeling healthy is an actual experience.

This may include a feeling of well-being; feeling solid, whole, at home in our bodies; feeling like we can move forward to accomplish our personal aims and goals, feeling physically strong and energetic, etc.

We feel healthy in the here-and-now.

Health involves being able to maintain our balance in the face of adversity.

Being able to cope, being resilient, being adaptable, asking for help when it is needed, etc.

Health involves the whole person and a balance among all our parts.

Physical health, mental well-being, and spiritual needs are all interconnected and play a role in overall health.

There is a natural vital energy in all living things.

Health also involves our relationship to all that is around us.

For example, relationships with other people and the physical environment. Some would put spiritual experience here.

Understanding illness involves understanding the whole person.

A person recovering from illness is restored spiritually, psychologically, and physically.

Maintaining health may mean getting help from a health professional or healer; engaging in activities for the purpose of preventing illnesses (like a diet to prevent diabetes); or having a satisfying lifestyle that is healthy and as a side-product maintains health (like if you practice yoga because you enjoy it, and it ends up helping to reduce stress).

What are basic needs, and what is a healthy lifestyle? It’s individual, but can include:

Activity (including exercise)

Nutrition

Touch

Social Relations

Meaningful existence

Relaxation

Spiritual Connectedness

Etc.

With regard to illness:
The body wants to heal itself.

Sometimes it needs a push in the right direction or other help restoring the ability to heal.

Holistic practitioners help the body regain its ability to heal itself. Sometimes this is not what is needed or enough, as when cancer or other illnesses require different kinds of help.

Some important parts of healing:

Restoring conditions so the body can heal itself; restoring balance to the body/mind/spirit; using the natural vital energy to help the body heal itself; attending to lifestyle; the relationship between a practitioner/giver and the client is important. Some methods:  herbs, acupuncture, touch, breathing, talk, etc.

Complicated Emotions

September 4th, 2013 by Heather Dillaway

Rocky emotions at menopause? // Photo courtesy of Heather Dillaway

Anyone who has ever loved anyone and existed in any kind of intimate relationship, or raised a kid, or negotiated with their parent as their parent ages knows that you can both love someone and also be very frustrated — even feel like hating them — at the very same time. You can love someone while simultaneously being extremely frustrated by her or him.
These same complicated love-hate emotions seem very present at perimenopause and menopause. The more I listen to middle-aged women talk and the more I see the media around menopause, the more I realize this. Feminist scholars have often stressed that menopause is not solely a negative transition and that women can find the transition positive at times. At the very least we’ve found that women feel indifferent or mixed about menopause, even if they don’t feel positive about the transition. BUT feeling positive or indifferent about reaching menopause (i.e., being happy to reach a certain period of life) is completely different from living with perimenopause. The signs and symptoms of perimenopause and menopause (e.g., hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, irregular bleeding, etc.) can be grueling, and to discount that means telling women that their everyday feelings are not real. Especially when one thinks about the uncertainty women feel when they don’t know how long perimenopause will last (and when menopause will finally arrive), it is important to think about the very real and very negative feelings women might have even if they are happy overall about making this reproductive transition. Feelings of negativity might also come from women’s thoughts about what menopause means for their fertility if they’ve had trouble conceiving (“After all I’ve been through, now I have to go through this?”) or what menopause means about aging (“Should I worry about aging now? What is coming next for me?”). Even if women are glad to be done with monthly periods, they might still be fearful of aging or mourn their fertility in some way. Women who have decided not to have kids might feel that it’s unfair to have to go through menopause when they didn’t even use their reproductive capacities, even if they are glad to finally be rid of periods. To not acknowledge these complicated emotions is to discount the complicated life courses that women lead. At any life stage we think about what has happened before and what will happen next, and our thoughts about both the past and the future affect how positive we can be about the present. Automatically this means we will have complicated emotions as we make life stage transitions.
Thinking about the road ahead, I know that I’m going to be like every other middle-aged woman. I’m going to love and hate perimenopause and menopause. Just like I’ve loved and hated all other reproductive events in my life. It’s too bad we don’t talk about this stuff more openly, because complicated emotions are actually fairly commonplace. At home. At work. In all of the arenas of everyday life. If we acknowledged this more fully ahead of time, we might be better off as we go through our life stage transitions. Transitions might still be rocky and rough, but at least we’d know it’s normal to have these emotions.

Understanding Research: (Meta)Theoretical Frameworks

August 19th, 2013 by Paula Derry

Research results are often reported by the media as stand-alone statements and as though they are facts. “Slim women have a greater risk of developing endometriosis than obese women.” “Respiratory symptoms vary according to stage of menstrual cycle.” In previous blogs, I have said that a reader needs to understand research methods and basic concepts found in statistics in order to make sense of what results really mean. This blog is about another ingredient that goes into making sense of research. Metatheoretical frameworks, basic ideas of how the world works, are important influences on how researchers choose what problem to study, choose the methods with which to study it, and choose how to interpret the results.

The context of research is always stated in research articles. Articles always include a write-up of previous work, discussing what has been done and what unanswered questions remain. This sets the stage for why the research being reported is interesting and important. However, what I want to discuss are more general, often implicit, basic assumptions. Even what seem to be brute facts are understandable as such only within a given set of basic assumptions or paradigms. Paradigms guide thinking, but change over time.

Thus, as discussed by Sheila Rothman, a  nineteenth century metatheory was that assertiveness and activity are dangerous for women. As stated in a more specific scientific theory: All people have a limited amount of nervous energy; this nervous energy is distributed over a greater number of organs in women than in men (because of their reproductive organs); therefore, all of women’s organs are more “sensitive and liable to derangement (p. 24).” It was concluded from these ideas that exercise and exertion are dangerous for women; further, mental exertion, such as going to college, should be avoided. Rothman describes case studies written up by physicians of women harmed by exertion and cured by rest. In this context, designing research to evaluate whether college harms women appeared to be a sensible, even important undertaking. So did structuring a college curriculum to avoid precipitating debility or insanity.

What are some of our current basic paradigms? One example: Menopause is senescence and reproductive physiology is central to women’s health. It follows from these premises that menopause or the transition to menopause are key factors in the development of chronic illness; research addresses what harm is created or, alternatively, whether these premises are correct. Another example: Cyclic changes in mood, intellect, and energy during different stages of the menstrual cycle are very important, especially to understand distress. Alternatively, a healthy menstrual cycle suggests that a woman is physically healthy.

Research I am conducting with Greg Derry addresses another metatheory about the menstrual cycle. Periods are most often described as cyclic, recurring in a regular repetitive manner (“every 28 days”). However, modern systems theorists know that there is a different kind of system (a “nonlinear dynamical system”) that by its nature generates a little bit of unpredictability and by its nature interacts with other systems (“is an open rather than a closed system”). Our research has provided evidence that the menstrual cycle is a nonlinear dynamical system. This means, among other things, that menstrual periods would be expected to be a little bit irregular with an occasional extreme cycle length.

The psychologist Robert Abelson reminds us that research is an ongoing process of discussion. Understanding research means joining the conversation.

Revisiting postmenopausal hormone therapy

July 4th, 2013 by Alice Dan

On June 24, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a report on the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study of Younger Women (WHIMSY) in the JAMA Network publication JAMA Internal Medicine.

This study is of particular interest because hormone therapy caused significant deficits in cognitive functioning in women aged 65 and older, as documented in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS). The “Timing Hypothesis” proposes that, despite the serious risks of hormone therapy demonstrated in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) research, therapy with conjugated equine estrogens can benefit women when it is started during the menopausal transition and in early menopause. Last year, a position paper endorsed by 14 medical societies made that claim (Stuenkel, et al, 2012).

Why would so many in the medical profession continue to prescribe hormone therapy, and to believe that hormone therapy is beneficial, in the face of powerful evidence that the risks of such therapy far outweigh the benefits? Probably several reasons:

1) Few other therapies are as effective in relieving women who suffer from distressing symptoms during and after the menopausal transition.

2) Animal and laboratory studies strongly support a positive role for estrogen in cognitive function.

3) The pharmaceutical industry wields tremendous power, and provides financial support to most of the medical societies and research studies in this area.

 It is, as the authors state, “reassuring” that this latest WHIMSY study found neither increased risk nor increased benefit in cognitive assessments an average of 7 years after the study was halted, among the 1,272 participants in the WHI who were 50 to 55 years old when the hormonal therapy was started. However, the lack of cognitive benefit makes one wonder why women would want to risk the serious consequences associated with hormone therapy.

Advocates for women’s health must continue to challenge the ethical and scientific basis for medical practices that can potentially be harmful to women. We need to support research on the mechanisms underlying the effects of hormones on women’s bodies, but also on the sociopolitical forces influencing medical practice.

 

Stuenkel, Cynthia A., Margery L. S. Gass, JoAnn E. Manson, Rogerio A. Lobo, Lubna Pal, Robert W. Rebar, and Janet E. Hall. “A decade after the Women’s Health Initiative—the experts do agree.” Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society 19.8 (2012): 846–847.

Two stupid ideas about menopause, and one that makes sense

July 3rd, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Two new suppositions about menopause have been tossed around the media in recent weeks. They make for racy headlines but both, unfortunately, perpetuate the myth that menopause is a disease women need to be protected from.

Most recent was the assertion by researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, that menopause in women is the unintended consequence of men’s preference for younger mates.

Men to blame for menopause

The writer with her mother Erna Sawyer who turns 95 on July 20, 2013. Is menopause an “age-related disease” that science must figure out how to prevent or an evolutionary adaptation for longevity?

Evolutionary biologist Rama Singh, co-author of the study published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, gave this explanation in a CBC news story: “What we’re saying is that menopause will occur if there is preferential mating with younger women and older women are not reproducing.”

The study used computer modelling to arrive at this hypothesis. Singh said that this “very simple theory”…”demystifies menopause…It becomes a simple age-related disease, if you can call it that.”

Well, no Mr. Singh, you can can’t call menopause a disease. I challenged this idea in response to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Death Loves Menopause ads in February 2012.

Yet there he is, hoping his work will prompt research on how to prevent menopause in women, helping us to maintain better health as we age. What does he really know about menopause anyway?

Another stupid idea about menopause surfaced in late May with headlines like: Women could evolve out of menopause ‘because it is no benefit to them.’

Women could evolve out of menopause

The story, covered by media everywhere, was based on comments by biologist and science writer Aarthi Prasad at the 2013 Telegraph Hay Festival, Britain’s leading festival of ideas.

The Daily Mail reported that if women evolve out of menopause we could then have children well into our 50s (But how many women want to?), and that “targeted gene therapies will be developed to treat the condition.”

We’ve been fighting the assumption that menopause is a “condition” that needs to be treated for decades, with members of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at the forefront of this assumption-busting.

Quoted in The Telegraph, Prasad also said, “What we think is normal is not normal for nature. If it is something not in all mammals, is it something necessary or beneficial for us? I do not see any benefits.”

Wow! Menopause is not “normal for nature.” But what about the argument made by doctors like Elsimar Coutinho who promote menstrual cycle suppression, who assert incessant ovulation (i.e. reproductive capacity) is not natural, normal or healthy in humans, therefore we should take drugs to stop it?

These doctors and scientists need to get on the same page. Which is it? Do we ovulate too much or do we not ovulate enough?

As for “no benefits” to menopause consider this: What if menopause is an evolutionary adaptation that works in women’s favor?

Do women live longer, healthier lives because of menopause?

An October 2010 story in The Calgary Herald - Why don’t monkeys go through menopause? - discussed the research of University of Calgary anthropologists Mary Pavelka and Linda Fedigan who’ve spent years documenting the aging and reproductive histories of Japanese female macaques.

Few study subjects lived past their reproductive capacity, about age 25, and those that did showed signs of serious physical deterioration. For these primates, retaining the ability to reproduce until late in life did not make them healthier. Fedigan noted that they were “crippled up with arthritis, their face is all wrinkled and their fur is falling out.”

The question, they noted, was why would human females lose their ability to reproduce in healthy middle age?

“One hypothesis is that it’s a byproduct of evolution for longevity in humans,” Pavelka said.

Now here’s an idea that makes sense. Think about it. Men produce sperm – albeit of dwindling quantity and quality – until they die; women transition to menopause and can live healthy lives for decades after. Women live significantly longer than men. Therefore, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that menopause supports longevity in women.

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