I have a new partner and he is surprised (in a good way) by my sexual appetite, and so am I. Am I normal?
Menopause is a natural female transition and the perception that it corresponds with a decline in libido is unhelpful. Menopause is determined by individual differences in health and physiology, and by attitude.
A study of menopausal transition and psychological development, by the department of clinical neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute, in Stockholm (2003), found that women who had optimistic, or neutral, expectations about menopause reported fewer symptoms than women who were pessimistic. Social learning influences how women perceive life changes.
For example, research by Catherine Busch and Paul Costa, at the National Institute on Aging (1986), found that the daughters of women who adhered to a ‘sickness’ model of menstruation had more symptoms, more visits to their GP, and more sick days for gynaecological issues.
You were expecting menopause to kill your libido, but a percentage of women experience the reverse.
When levels of oestrogen and progesterone fall and levels of testosterone stabilise, they can create a spike in libido.
Positive side-effects of menopause don’t get as much press as negative ones, because so many companies have a vested interest in turning ‘ageing’ into an illness that can be treated with pills, potions and panty liners.
The medicalisation of menopause is not recent. Marlene Cimons, of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, found that coverage of the menopause in three American broadsheets and five women’s magazines, through the 20th century, presented it as a “deficiency” disease.
Because of negativity, many women, like you, approach menopause fearing the worst, but a wealth of research shows that most women subsequently reflect on it as a positive, natural and normal physiological event, which has had little or no impact on their ‘wellness’.
There are women who struggle with hormonal changes in later life, but the majority don’t experience profound difficulties and 25% of women don’t have any side-effects. And the emphasis a woman places on sex before menopause is a significant predictor of her sexual activity in later life.
A study of 600 women, chronicling them between the ages of 40 and 65, by Dr Holly Thomas, at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Healthcare, found that women who said sex was moderately or extremely important were three times more likely to remain active than women who said it wasn’t.
There’s nothing like a new relationship to reaffirm the importance of sex, and women who have a new love in mid-life often find that their libido is reinvigorated. Even when women are experiencing the side-effects of hormonal decline, their symptoms disappear when they have a new sexual partner.
The old ‘use it or lose it’ adage is pertinent to sex in menopause, because orgasm strengthens the pelvic floor and arousal encourages blood flow to the genital area, which keeps the tissue plump and healthy.
This counters vaginal dryness and atrophy, symptoms that affect about half of all menopausal women to varying degrees.
It is unsurprising that women who find sex painful are less likely to want it, but dryness and atrophy can be treated with good lubricants and locally applied oestrogen, in the form of creams or pessaries.
Unlike conventional forms of HRT, local oestrogen is considered low risk and is recommended by the British Menopause Society, yet results from the CLOSER (Clarifying Vaginal Atrophy’s Impact On Sex and Relationships, 2012) study show that just one in five women has tried a local oestrogen treatment.
Like all aspects of ageing, menopause presents women with a set of problems, but women who are pro-active about preserving their physical and mental health shouldn’t anticipate sexual difficulties as an inevitability.
In a 2012 study of 806 women aged 40 to 100, carried out by Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, half of the participants were still sexually active and most were able to become aroused, maintain lubrication and achieve orgasm during sex, even after the age of 80.
The average life span for a woman in Europe is now 82.5 years, so, with luck, you have another 30 years in which to enjoy sexual freedom, unencumbered by the constraints of your biology. That’s really something to look forward to.
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