For men, middle age brings the promise of little blue pills and little clear gel packs—Viagra and testosterone to combat the indignities of aging. For women, when things get hot, complicated, and fuzzy, turning to hormones for relief is a trickier proposition.
“It's like my brain is on spin,” says Kathy Kelley, the founder of the website Hyster Sisters, which offers resources for women going through hysterectomy and early menopause.
Kelley had her uterus and ovaries removed when she was 41, and though she took estrogen to replace the hormones her ovaries used to produce, she says she felt an almost immediate change, a sort of brain fog. Among the community of users on her site, the stories were worse for those who decided to go off their hormones.
“We've seen it create some devastating effects for women [who are] afraid of taking hormone therapy when that's exactly what they need,” says Kelley.
Menopause is the term for the end of a woman's menstrual cycle, which occurs on average at age 51. In the years leading up to and after menopause, a whole host of symptoms can crop up as a consequence of the slowing flow of hormones (less than 30 picograms per milliliter of the hormone estradiol in the blood usually indicates a woman is postmenopausal, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine). Symptoms include hot flashes, insomnia, memory problems, anxiety or depression, and weight gain. Replacement hormones can ease those symptoms, but the choice to use hormone therapy is not that simple. There are compelling reasons why women might not want to take hormones including a greater risk for stroke and breast cancer. And, given the dubious history of treating menopause, it's not surprising confusion still reigns.