A woman leans her head against a window.
A new study of pre-menopausal and menopausal women has helped shed light on how every woman experiences menopause differently, and what treatments are most effective. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Every woman experiences menopause in her own unique way with a variety of symptoms.

She may suffer from hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, weight gain, fatigue and a sense of not feeling right. Some of these symptoms may sound familiar to you—possibly all of them.

I’ve seen several patients recently who each complained of different issues related to menopause.

A woman I’ll call Peg had to stop wearing silk shirts to work because she sweat through each one. Another patient, Sue, became embarrassed in meetings because her face becomes very red when she makes presentations to her peers. Cindy felt depressed that even though everything in her life was great, she had a sadness she just couldn’t shake. And then there’s Gloria, who expressed frustration with weight gain she recently began experiencing.

The four women felt betrayed by their bodies.

Fortunately, I had some encouraging information to share with each of these patients, thanks to a comprehensive women’s health study called the SWAN study.

The Study of Women Across the Nation (SWAN) is an ongoing study that follows women between ages 42 and 52 in order to understand how they will experience the menopause transition. There are seven SWAN sites across the nation: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, Pittsburgh and Oakland.

Each woman receives a physical exam that includes measuring her height, weight, waist circumference, blood pressure and lab work levels. The study also records whether or not she smokes, how much alcohol she consumes, her education status and family history. Race/ethnicity is categorized as African American, non-Hispanic Caucasian, Chinese, Japanese or Hispanic.

The results of the SWAN study are interesting and have helped doctors understand why each woman’s menopause experience is unique.

For example, the study showed that women who became at higher risk for heart disease—increased cholesterol, belly fat and blood sugar levels—tended to fall in the following categories: Hispanic or Japanese, less physically active, less likely to be highly educated, and most had higher BMI and cholesterol levels before the study began. Pre-diabetes was found to be a very high risk factor across all ethnic groups.

Another study done in Pittsburgh evaluated Caucasian and African-American participants at risk of depression. Twenty percent to 30 percent of participating women had new onset depression between the ages of 42 and 52.

The women in the study had an average age of 46, and 31 percent were African American. In addition, 34 percent had a family history of depression. The women who had a family history of depression proved to be more likely to be highly educated and have experienced at least one episode of depression.

The SWAN study has also taught doctors so many other important facts about women in menopause:

  • Hot flashes are different for each woman.
  • Women of color experience hot flashes for the longest period of time (average of 10 years).
  • Women of Asian descent have hot flashes for the shortest period of time, but they suffer more with depression and irritability.
  • Hispanic women suffer from hot flashes an average of 8.9 years.
  • Caucasian women experience hot flashes an average of 6.5 years.
  • The earlier women start having hot flashes, the longer they last.

There are so many other fascinating findings that have occurred as a result of this ongoing study, but the bottom line is that women do not have to suffer the symptoms of menopause.

There is help for you and plenty of research to back up the findings. Strong, scientific research is being done to help us know what works best and determine the safest method for treating menopause symptoms.

I recommend being active, drinking plenty of water, maintaining a healthy weight, staying off the sugar, and being grateful in your life daily. These are simple but very powerful tools used to combat the symptoms of menopause.

In addition, there are FDA-approved hormones that may help those who need them. They are a safe option for many women.

If you think you may benefit from this type of treatment, ask you doctor, or come see us at the Spectrum Health Menopause offices. If we discover that hormones are not safe for you, there are many other options to try.