Does Menopause Need to Be Miserable?

According to a new study from McMaster University, we should blame menopause on men and their preference for younger mates.

I’d argue, though, that it’s not men that we should hold responsible for women’s distress at the cessation of their menses: It’s Western society.

Middle-aged women in the West fear the onset of menopause and expect unpleasant physical and psychological side effects like hot flashes, night sweats, stress and mood swings—but women experience the “menopausal” transition differently around the world, and there’s ample evidence that the end of monthly bleeding need not entail mental or physical discomfort.

In Asian cultures where prestige increases with age, menopause is seen as a transition to a higher status—and women not only associate fewer distressing symptoms with this period, but even experience a more gradual drop in estrogen levels.

The anthropologist Margaret Lock was one of the first to question the universality of women’s experience of menopause. In the 1980s, she discovered that menopausal women in Japan were far less likely to complain of problems like hot flashes and night sweats; if Japanese women did report physical symptoms, they described shoulder stiffness or dizziness, and many seemed to have no symptoms at all. In fact, Lock found that the Japanese language did not even contain a term that translated directly as “menopause.” The closest expression, konenki, refers to a gradual transition into old age, and applies equally to both men and women.

Recent research only provides more support for the theory that the experience of menopause is determined by cultural attitudes rather than just hormonal changes. In 1990, Ratna Samil and Marcha Flint claimed to have discovered a caste in Northern India where women experienced a totally symptom-free menopause. A 2003 study found that Australian women reported insomnia and irritability during menopause, while Taiwanese women complained of “crawling under the skin.”

All women who live into old age will eventually lose their periods, but that might not mean they have to lose their ability to regulate their body temperatures, too. If menopause is a cultural construct rather than a biological reality, then the evolutionary scientists at McMaster University are asking the wrong questions.