Stop making the menopause into a brand! It's about healthcare, not money

Asia's Tech News Daily

The menopause used to be the condition that dare not speak its name, the domain of elderly aunts whispering about “the change”. Now it’s impossible to escape the topic. A slew of celebrities from Davina McCall to Meg Mathews can’t stop talking about hot flushes, brain fog and vaginal atrophy and on Monday it is World Menopause Day.

The cause even got royal backing recently, with Sophie, Countess of Wessex, patron of the charity Wellbeing of Women, talking about the fate of menopausal women in the workplace. “We are fabulous in our 40s and even more fabulous in our 50s, 60s and 70s,” she said. “We shouldn’t be made to slope off into the shadows.” Quite.

The statistics are stark: 900,000 women are said to have quit their jobs because of menopausal symptoms, according to the Menopause Charity, with 80% reporting hot flushes and 60% brain fog. A TUC survey of 4,000 women found that the menopause affected the working lives of 85% of respondents.

There is also something of a menopause gold rush under way. A host of brands have launched menopause creams, cookware and even menopause-appropriate clothing. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but I can’t help wondering how much of this is truly helpful and how much is marketing spin.

Of course, it is good that menopause policies are becoming a corporate must, but, as Jenny Haskey, chair of the Menopause Charity, says: “It is not enough for companies just to have a menopause policy which sits in a file. We need proper conversations and a change in the culture.

“Most importantly, women need to be speaking to their doctors through perimenopause and menopause as hormones fluctuate, and have regular check-ups. They need to know what the medical options are for their symptoms, whether that is HRT, or certain medicines that help with hot flushes, or vaginal oestrogen. And, of course, doctors need to have the information that women need.

“It is striking that 15,000 doctors, nurses and trainee GPs have taken up the free FourteenFish Confidence in Menopause course since the charity launched it in May – to compensate for the lack of this material in existing medical training.”

A survey conducted last week by Noon, the platform I founded for women in midlife, with supplement brand Lyma, found 85% of women wanted more and better information about menopause (we’ve just published our six-part guide, The Feelgood Menopause, written by health journalist Jo Waters) and 65% said they were confused, particularly about the safety of HRT.

But while there is no doubt that an overhaul of available treatments is needed (the cross-party backed menopause (support and services) bill will receive its second reading later this month, in the hope of making HRT free of NHS charges in England (as it is in Scotland and Wales), I do want to sound a note of caution.

I have spent the last year in conversation with midlife women and while they all want access to reliable information and knowledgeable doctors, they are also clear that they do not want to be defined by their biology.

Certainly, as a young woman, I didn’t want to be defined by whether or not I was having my period. I was often enraged when I was accused of being pre-menstrual (code for moody). Let’s not forget that for millennia women were excluded from education on the grounds that their brains were inferior because of their pesky wombs and hormones.

Menopause is a natural phase of life for which women need the correct information and medical attention. At 50, I really don’t want to be defined as a hysterical collection of brain fog and sweatiness, disabled from doing my job by my pesky hormones. And I don’t want employers to be put off (any more than they are by ageism already) from hiring older women.

I am not alone in this view. Another Noon survey, conducted with Vision Express last month, found that 67% of midlife women did not want to be seen as a walking hot flush.

My immersion in the lives of these women has made me realise that the midlife pivot is not just about hormones. Research from the Centre for Midlife in America finds that unhappiness peaks at the age of 47 because it is when we are hit with a tsunami of issues: divorce, bereavement, empty nests, elderly parents, our own health problems and redundancy.

There is also that creeping sense as we hit 50 that there is less life still to come than has already passed and we need to make the years left count. Many of the women I have spoken to are keen to stress that this time in their lives is not just about menopause.

The stories we hear at Noon are about women wanting a new challenge, a legacy, some purpose. Many are going back to university as mature students, “finally doing something for me”, as one of them put it to me last week. Others are going back to pursue dreams they had when they were younger – one woman became a standup comedian at 60, while another who was told at school her options were to be a teacher, a secretary or a hairdresser (and opted for the last) published her first novel in her 50s. Some have left the corporate world and are becoming consultants or founding their own businesses.

Noon’s #SeeYourselfDifferently campaign features seven women in midlife who are starting a new chapter and love the lives they are leading. One of the women is the radio and TV presenter Jo Whiley, who said: “There’s a joy and liberation that comes with age. It makes complete sense to me to embrace your midlife years – you have more knowledge, wisdom and experience.”

Another woman, Rachel Peru, became a curve/lingerie model at 50 (she had always wanted to be an actress). Victoria Whitford left her career as a diplomat at 46 and retrained to be a GP, which had been her childhood dream.

I am all in favour of the menopause coming out of the shadows. Unlike childbirth, or breastfeeding, menopause is something that all women go through. For too long women’s health issues have been the poor relation, under-funded, under-researched. I welcome the spotlight on, for instance, the re-evaluations of HRT. The latest studies show only minimal risks attached to taking it and, for many women, it is a lifesaver.

Kate Muir, producer of Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause on Channel 4 and author of a forthcoming book called Everything You Need to Know About the Menopause, said: “Talking to menopause experts and women themselves, I’ve found the main problem at work is not just hot flushes but the combination of anxiety, loss of confidence and fatigue. Brain fog is a key worry for high-powered women.

Related: Vagina lasering for postmenopausal women ‘may be placebo’

“Hormonal anxiety and brain fog is not being treated properly, with one survey from Newson Health showing that 66% of women complaining of low mood in menopause were being offered antidepressants rather than HRT, which is much more likely to help. I had comically low levels of progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone . They were so low my brain just wasn’t working properly. Once I got put on the right cocktail of hormones, it started to fire on all cylinders again”.

For eons, in the eyes of men, women stopped being valuable when they were no longer fecund or fanciable – it is why, too often, older women are erased from the cultural narrative and become invisible because the male lens doesn’t want to look at them. We need to fix the menopause so we can get on with having a rich second half of our lives. We don’t want the “pinkification” gold rush to put women back in that old “hysterical” box.

I don’t want a menopause-branded cooking pot, or menopause-friendly clothing – I just want to get on with feeling good in my skin and living the life I love.

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