"Over 1 billion women around the world will have experienced perimenopause by 2025. But a culture that has spent years dismissing the process might explain why we don’t know more about it.
By: Jessica Grose | April 29, 2021
"Angie McKaig calls it “peri brain” out loud, in meetings. That’s when the 49-year-old has moments of perimenopause-related brain fog so intense that she will forget the point she is trying to make in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes it will happen when she’s presenting to her colleagues in digital marketing at Canada’s largest bank in Toronto. But it can happen anywhere — she has forgotten her own address. Twice.
Ms. McKaig’s symptoms were a rude surprise when she first started experiencing them in 2018, right around when her mother died. She had an irregular period, hot flashes, insomnia and massive hair loss along with memory issues she describes as “like somebody had taken my brain and done the Etch A Sketch thing,” which is to say, shaken it until it was blank.
She thought she might have early-onset Alzheimer’s, or that these changes were a physical response to her grief, until her therapist told her that her symptoms were typical signs of perimenopause, which is defined as the final years of a woman’s reproductive life leading up to the cessation of her period, or menopause. It usually begins in a woman’s 40s, and is marked by fluctuating hormones and a raft of mental and physical symptoms that are “sufficiently bothersome” to send almost 90 percent of women to their doctors for advice about how to cope.
Ms. McKaig is aggressively transparent about her “peri brain” at work, because she “realized how few people actually talk about this, and how little information we are given. So I have tried to normalize it,” she said.
An oft-cited statistic from the North American Menopause Society is that by 2025, more than 1 billion women around the world will be post-menopausal. The scientific study of perimenopause has been going on for decades, and the cultural discussion of this mind and body shift has reached something of a new fever pitch, with several books on the subject coming out this spring and a gaggle of “femtech” companies vowing to disrupt perimenopause.
If the experience of perimenopause is this universal, why did almost every single layperson interviewed for this article say something along the lines of: No one told me it would be like this?
“You’re hearing what I’m hearing, ‘Nobody ever told me this, my mother never told me this,’ and I had the same experiences many years ago with my mother,” said Dr. Lila Nachtigall, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine who has been treating perimenopausal women for 50 years, and is an adviser to Elektra Health, a telemedicine start-up.
Dr. Nachtigall said her mother had the worst hot flashes, and even though they were living in the same house when her mother was experiencing perimenopausal symptoms, they never discussed it. “That was part of the taboo. You were supposed to suffer in silence.”
The shroud of secrecy around women’s intimate bodily functions is among the many reasons experts cite for the lack of public knowledge about women’s health in midlife. But looking at the medical and cultural understanding of perimenopause through history reveals how this rite of passage, sometimes compared to a second puberty, has been overlooked and under discussed.
From ‘Women’s Hell’ to ‘Age of Renewal’
Though the ancient Greeks and Romans knew a woman’s fertility ended in midlife, there are few references to menopause in their texts, according to Susan Mattern, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, in her book “The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause.”
The term “menopause” wasn’t used until around 1820, when it was coined by Charles de Gardanne, a French physician. Before then, it was colloquially referred to as “women’s hell,” “green old age” and “death of sex,” Dr. Mattern notes. Dr. de Gardanne cited 50 menopause-related conditions that sound somewhat absurd to modern ears, including “epilepsy, nymphomania, gout, hysterical fits and cancer.”