Betty White once said, “I may be a senior, but so what? I’m still hot.” While the witty one-liner brings laughs, the famous nonagenarian, now 95 years old, perfectly sums up an attitude being adopted by more and more women approaching the once dreaded “senior citizen” stage of life.
Healthier living through more active lifestyles, better nutrition and a more in-depth understanding of how our bodies work and age has extended the average lifespan, bringing a new definition to what it means to be “senior.” Working in concert with this new definition, is a more open dialogue about health in later years – and not just in terms of cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes, but also sexuality.
It wasn’t long ago that the hot flashes and night sweats that came with menopause signaled an unofficial end to one’s sex life, and in some sense was a big blaring reminder that the end was approaching. But, according to Ann Steiner, MD, a clinical professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Penn Medicine, the average lifespan of a woman today is 81, and the average age of menopause is 51 – making the post-menopausal stage of life considerable.
“Women in their sixties are still rocking, and it isn’t in rocking chairs,” said Karen Giblin, founder of the Red Hot Mamas Menopause Education and Support Programs. “They show no signs of slowing down and they certainly are not getting hung up about the number 60. Age is all in the eye of the beholder, but for the majority of women, they feel they are in the prime of their lives at 60 and it’s vital that they have access to tools and educational resources to keep them feeling that way.”
Next month, Penn Medicine’s department of Ob/Gyn will join the Red Hot Mamas and the North American Menopause Society to host an educational event aimed at providing women with the latest accurate and reassuring information about menopause and life after 60 – what is quickly becoming “the new midlife.”
“There has been a noticeable lack of education about menopause and what that means for today’s woman, both on the patient and provider side,” Steiner says, noting that at Penn Medicine, all ob/gyn residents regularly rotate through the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women. The program, which was started five years ago and is unique among ob/gyn resident training programs, not only provides pre- and post-menopausal services to the women of West Philadelphia, but also offers focused menopause training to residents. “As a patient, understanding what to expect and how to manage it is the key to getting through it as smoothly as possible, and helps them to feel like they’re in control of what’s going on and not just a victim of aging.”
Studies have suggested that hot flashes alone can last as many as 10 years, while other research has reported that 40 to 50 percent of women experience problems with vaginal dryness and pain during sex. But, women’s health has changed; with women living 30 years or more post-menopause, health providers today are encouraging women to be their own advocates and talk openly with their doctors about their experiences. Research has aided these conversations by shedding light on lifestyle changes – such as quitting smoking, increasing exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting alcohol consumption, and practicing stress reducing activities – medications and non-medicinal therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy for hot flashes) that can ease the unwanted effects of menopause. But for Steiner, nothing beats good old fashion education.
“Menopause is not a disease. It’s about understanding your new normal,” Steiner said.
“Women entering menopause have to change their expectations about what ‘normal’ will feel like, so beyond the medication, there’s a major educational component to this. We don’t treat menopause, we treat symptoms that are bothersome.”
Much of what we now know about the transition to menopause was actually learned from women in Philadelphia. As Philadelphia Magazine reported last year, the Penn Ovarian Aging Study (POAS) tracked Caucasian and African-American women over the course of 18 years – covering the premenopausal to postmenopausal transition period. The data has been used to understand how hormonal changes affect physical and behavioral symptoms and, as one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, it has since been used to inform more than 50 articles in medical journals.
“Studies like the POAS have transformed the way practitioners understand and treat menopause,” Steiner says, noting that “an understanding of the risk factors, symptoms, and management of the common menopausal symptoms, allows for improved patient care and health outcomes for older female patients.” But, Steiner says, as much as it’s important to put menopause on the radar for providers, there’s a clear benefit to bringing the information to women as well.
“The women who attend Red Hot Mamas programs across the nation stay stimulated by learning new things about protecting their health as they approach menopause and beyond,” Giblin said. “They don’t feel their age, nor do their peers think of them as old at 60, and a lot of that has to do with having good health, and understanding their bodies.”