Most of us assume we know the answer to the question, “Is menopause genetic?” In a nutshell, your experience will be just like your mom’s. Right?
Not necessarily. While there’s a strong hereditary component to the perimenopausal and menopausal experience, there’s a lot more to consider, says Bonafide Chief Medical Officer Dr. Alyssa Dweck. What’s more, understanding how different elements factor in—from genetics to environmental aspects and lifestyle habits—can go a long way towards ensuring your experience is a positive one.
Here, we talk with Dr. Dweck to learn more about the relationship between menopause and genetics, the other factors at play, and what you can do to feel your best regardless of your family history.
What Factors Affect How You Experience Menopause?
“Genetics have a lot to do with your experience. But there are a lot of variables involved that are hard to totally tease out,” Dr. Dweck explains. “What’s more, environmental and lifestyle factors also play a role.”
In short, a woman’s menopause experience, as a whole, is made up of many parts – all of which experts are still learning about. These components, according to Dr. Dweck, seem to be key:
If you’re wondering whether the age you experience menopause is genetic, there’s strong evidence to suggest the answer is yes.1 “The average age of menopause is 52, but you’ll follow your mom’s timeline for the most part,” Dr. Dweck says.
There’s a chance your symptoms will have some family connection, too.2 “There have been genes identified that tend to give an association between your genetic makeup and the type of experience you have with hot flashes and night sweats,” explains Dr. Dweck.
But your mother isn’t necessarily the only one to thank (or blame). “Anecdotally we have the most information from mothers, sisters, and maternal grandmothers,” Dr. Dweck says. “But that doesn’t leave the paternal side out. We just don’t have as much of that information because no one goes to their father and asks, ‘What did your mother go through during menopause?’”
“Women who are overweight or obese tend to have a worse experience with hot flashes and night sweats. If obesity is higher in a particular genetic or racial demographic sector, these variables all have to be taken into account,” Dr. Dweck explains.
Obesity also tends to run in families3, so it’s hard to know for sure whether a group of female relatives ends up having similar menopause experiences because they all happen to be overweight, because they share similar medical histories or dietary patterns or because of another genetic variable, Dr. Dweck notes.
But there’s a flip side to that. If your mother is or was overweight and you aren’t, your lower weight could mean that your menopause symptoms end up being less severe. “You’re not doomed to have a bad experience just because your mother had one,” says Dr. Dweck.
Lighting up can have a negative influence on your menopause experience, regardless of your family history. “You might go through it earlier or have a more difficult experience with hot flashes or night sweats,” Dr. Dweck says.
Some data suggests that a person’s tendency towards smoking might be influenced by genetics.4 So if a woman and her mom both smoke, it would be hard to say for sure whether their shared menopause experience was due to them being smokers, another genetic component, or a combination of both.
On the other hand, if your mother smokes or smoked and you don’t, that’s a factor that could make your menopause experience very different from hers, explains Dr. Dweck.
Spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol seem to have an ability to trigger hot flashes and night sweats, notes Dr. Dweck. On the other hand, women whose diets are rich in soy foods may be less likely to experience these symptoms, she says.
That might not seem like it has much to do with genetics on the surface. But “certain groups of women tend to eat more spicy foods or soy foods than others,” Dr. Dweck points out. For instance, Asian women, as a whole, tend to consume more soy, while also experiencing fewer hot flashes and night sweats compared to women of other races.5
In other words, it could be that part of the reason that a group of female relatives experience similar menopause symptoms has to do with the fact that they eat similar foods. And if you were to avoid those dietary triggers, your experience might not be the same.
What Age Does Menopause Start?
The average age of menopause—the moment you haven’t had a period for 12 consecutive months—is 52. But if your mother experienced menopause earlier or later, there’s a good chance that you’ll follow suit, Dr. Dweck says.
Regardless of when you expect menopause to happen for you, it’s worth taking steps to prepare ahead of time. Especially since perimenopausal symptoms can begin many years before your periods fully stop. “I’d say 40 is a good time to start thinking about your family and medical history and start taking steps to be mindful of and modify lifestyle habits,” Dweck says.
Perimenopause and Menopause Symptoms to Look For
Every woman will have a unique experience with perimenopause and menopause. While you may start to notice certain symptoms or sensations that your own mother or another female relative also had, it’s possible for your journey to look different.
The symptoms to look out for during perimenopause and menopause include:
- Periods that skip, become irregular, longer, shorter, lighter, or heavier than your norm
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Mood changes, or feelings of irritability or depression
- Vaginal dryness
- Lower sex drive6
Keep in mind that these symptoms probably won’t hit you all at once. “Most women are hit with gradual warning signs,” Dr. Dweck says.
How to Improve Your Menopause Experience
None of us can know for sure what our menopause experience will be like until it starts. But you do know that it’s coming. Being proactive can help you modify your behavior to nip potential symptoms in the bud and discuss the best management and treatment options with your healthcare provider.
Dr. Dweck recommends that every woman:
Talk with Your Mom, If You Can
“As our moms age, we need to understand their experience while they can still remember it easily,” Dr. Dweck says. Ask your mom about the types of symptoms she experienced, when they started, and whether she had any successful strategies for finding relief.
If your mother is no longer alive or you aren’t able to talk with her, try to look elsewhere. Is there an aunt or other female relative you could talk with? Could you review your mother’s medical history to better understand the risk factors that might have affected her menopause experience? Any information is better than none.
Discuss Your Family and Medical History with Your Healthcare Provider
Starting in your early 40s, open an ongoing conversation about perimenopause with your healthcare provider. Share what you know about your mother’s menopause experience, Dr. Dweck suggests. “If you and she are similar and she didn’t have a great experience, we can closely monitor the symptoms and see what we can do to intervene right now.”
Be transparent about your own medical history too, since it can inform the best way to manage symptoms that do come up. “Women with a history of breast cancer or blood clotting, in particular, are prime candidates for alternatives to hormone replacement therapy,” Dr. Dweck says.
Be prepared to share details even if you don’t think they’re relevant. Factors like heart disease, pregnancy history, and even how you reacted to birth control pills in the past are all related to how your body moves through menopause, Dr. Dweck notes, so don’t leave anything out.
Adopt Healthy Habits Now
“The genetic component of how you go through menopause might not be able to be altered. But the lifestyle and environmental aspects can be,” Dr. Dweck says. Often, there are steps you can take to head off unpleasant symptoms before they even start, like eating right and exercising, quitting smoking, or taking steps to manage your stress, she notes.
Of course, adopting healthier lifestyle habits can be just as beneficial even if you’re already experiencing symptoms. “It’s never too late,” says Dr. Dweck.
Keep a Positive Outlook
You might dread the idea of menopause, especially if you watched your mother have a hard time herself. But it doesn’t have to be unpleasant for you, Dweck says.
“The one point I try to make to everyone is that menopause should not be brought to light as this miserable situation. It’s an incredibly positive time of life for so many women,” she notes.