Mood Disorders and the Menopausal Transition
In the United States more than 1.3 million women are expected to reach menopause every year. The transition to menopause or perimenopause represents the passage from reproductive to non-reproductive life. Most women during the perimenopause experience irregular menstrual periods (e.g., shortened or longer cycles), which reflect the large fluctuation of ovarian hormones secretion during this time. The menopausal transition usually begins during a woman’s fourth decade of life, with a mean age of 47.5 years, and an average duration of 4-8 years. In other words, some women will be facing physical and emotional changes throughout several years, until they finally reach menopause. The menopause is defined by the occurrence of the last menstrual period followed by 12 months without menses (also called amenorrhea). The menopause usually occurs at a mean age of 51 years.
Symptoms of the Menopausal Transition
Aside from changes in the menstrual frequency, length and menstrual flow, the menopausal transition is typically marked by the presence of vasomotor symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats (hot flushes that occur with perspiration causing nocturnal awakenings). A hot flush is a “transient episode of flushing, sweating and a sensation of heat, often accompanied by palpitations and a feeling of anxiety, and sometimes followed by chills”, and is experienced by 45-85% of women, sometimes even before they are experiencing menstrual changes. The majority of women, however, will experience these symptoms during the year of their last menstrual period or soon afterward. Those who experience natural menopause usually have their vasomotor symptoms diminished over the following two years. Women who underwent surgical menopause, on the other hand, commonly experience more severe vasomotor symptoms right after surgery. The reason why some women develop hot flushes is yet to be determined, but it may include thermoregulatory problems due to decreased estrogen levels, among other changes. Other physical changes/symptoms commonly observed during the menopausal transition include insomnia, memory problems, sexual dysfunction, and higher risk for osteoporosis or cardiovascular disease.
Depression and the Menopausal Transition
More than a century ago, investigators were already trying to identify an association between depression and menopause. Initially, women were described as suffering from a “climacteric melancholia” or “nervous irritability” or “fully developed insanity” developed during this period. Many decades later, the search for correlates of depression during the perimenopause continues, including different factors such as presence of intense hormonal changes, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, marital satisfaction, history of puerperal depression or significant premenstrual symptoms, among others.
The search for a “perimenopausal depressive syndrome”, however, has led to inconclusive findings; on one hand, it is known that women seeking treatment at menopause clinics are more likely to report significant physical symptoms (e.g., vasomotor complaints), as well as depressive symptoms and concomitant anxiety. On the other hand, most women in the community are not likely to experience significant depression while approaching menopause. Thus, it is important to understand why some women (but not all women) will develop depressive symptoms while approaching menopause, i.e., to identify significant risk factors for the development of a menopause-related mood disturbance.
It has been speculated that some women might be particularly vulnerable during periods of intense hormonal fluctuations (such as the menopausal transition, or the puerperal period). Abrupt hormone changes would affect mood and behavior by altering the equilibrium in several neurotransmitter systems in the brain. This would explain the occurrence of higher rates of depression during the perimenopause (when hormonal changes are intense, sometimes chaotic), compared to postmenopausal years – when estrogen levels are low, but stable. Another possible explanation – the domino theory – proposes that the discomfort caused by somatic symptoms of the perimenopause (e.g., night sweats and hot flushes) provokes physical changes (e.g. sleep disturbance) and consequently affects mood stability. Hence, investigators have speculated that the capacity of estrogen to improve mood is secondary to relief of somatic menopausal symptoms and secondary to normalization of sleep.
From a more psychosocial point of view, the menopausal transition has been traditionally identified as a non-adaptative event, during which women are at risk of losing a “major role”: maternity. Thus, the “empty-nest syndrome” (when children leave home) was proposed as a psychosocial cause of psychological symptoms manifesting during the menopausal transition. The relative validity of this theory has been questioned, and appears to be restricted to women who are too engaged and over-involved with their children, and would consequently feel useless, isolated and depressed when the children leave home. Conversely, more psychologically healthy women would consider this period an opportunity to expand work/social activities, and to dedicate more time to the marital relationship. Interestingly, some recent studies have pointed out that children returning home (e.g., after finishing college, divorce, etc) may represent a stressful event for some parents who had a chance to rearrange their lives accordingly after their leaving.
Treatment Options for Menopause-Related Symptoms
The use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been the treatment of choice to alleviate physical symptoms associated with the menopausal transition (short-term use of HRT), and to help in preventing the clinical consequences of an estrogen-deficient state, including osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease (long-term use of HRT). More recently, the list of benefits of estrogen therapy was expanded, incorporating preliminary but promising findings on the use of estrogen to improve mood and cognition in perimenopausal women.
Recent results form large, prospective studies (e.g., HERS, WHI), however, have questioned the safety of long-term use of HRT, as well as its efficacy to prevent cardiovascular diseases. Because of that, many women have decided to discontinue their HRT regimens. Still others who did not abandon their prescription hormones are now questioning their current treatment and searching for potential alternatives. Both women and their doctors are now facing a difficult situation: how should they deal with menopause-related physical and emotional symptoms, in the post-WHI era?
Clinicians and health professionals should continue considering many factors when advising women approaching menopause or postmenopausal on treatment choices. For instance, it is important to keep in mind that the short-term use of HRT (up to 3 to 5 years) has not been considered unsafe, and still is the most efficacious treatment for vasomotor symptoms (i.e., night sweats, hot flushes). Moreover, for those who are unwilling to stay on HRT, a quick reminder that an abrupt treatment discontinuation could lead in some cases to the occurrence or reemergence of vasomotor symptoms, interfering with sleep pattern, physical well-being and most probably mood.
Also, the “alternative” treatments available for menopause-related symptoms are not necessarily safe. Some of the so-called “natural” treatments for menopausal symptoms have a significant binding affinity for estrogen receptors, and may result in similar risks. Their use should be carefully considered, particularly in the presence of contra-indications for using estrogen therapy.
Lastly, recent studies suggest that antidepressants promote improvement of vasomotor symptoms; they may constitute an interesting alternative for those who are unable or unwilling to take HRT for the alleviation of menopause-related depressive symptoms and vasomotor complaints.
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How do I get an appointment?
Menopausal women and those women beginning to experience early “perimenopausal symptoms” frequently suffer from depressive symptoms. The extent to which this is a direct function of hormonal changes associated with the menopause, emerging depression, or a side-effect of hormonal therapy is clarified by experienced clinicians in consultation with gynecologists. Consultations regarding treatment options can be scheduled by calling our intake coordinator at 617-724-7792.
Menopausal Research at the CWMH
Currently we are conducting a research study for insomnia and nighttime vasomotor symptoms in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women. To learn more about this study, please click this link. To view the list of our other active studies, or to sign up for our research study registry, please visit our research page.