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If you’re going through menopause during the COVID-19 crisis, or if someone you love is, you may be wondering if the novel Coronavirus affects menopausal women.

Are menopausal women more at-risk?

Are there ways to decrease the risk?

These are all good questions, since menopause can already be a trying time (to say the least!) without a pandemic halting normal life. Menopause generally hits at an average age of 51. It is the culmination of a natural process that occurs when the ovaries stop making oestrogen and progesterone. Other causes of menopause, including early menopause, are treatments like chemotherapy, hysterectomy, or other ovarian issues.

After a year without a regular monthly period, menopause begins, bringing with it several not-so-pleasant side effects, such as hot flashes, mood swings, depression, thinning hair, breast fullness loss, slowed metabolism, dry skin, an increase in facial hair, cognitive issues (think: forgetfulness and focus issues), and sleep problems.

Hormone therapy, lifestyle changes, and other therapies may be utilised at this time, but nothing prepares you for a global pandemic during menopause, so it’s important to understand how this novel virus might affect you.

Are menopausal women specifically more at risk for the Coronavirus?

Dr Barb DePree, gynaecologist in practice for nearly 30 years who specialises in midlife women’s health and is the Director of the Women’s Midlife Services at Holland Hospital, Michigan says, “COVID-19 is not likely to be a significant additional risk to menopausal women per se, but menopause is a time women begin to have increased risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, once they lose the protective effects of oestrogen. These co-morbidities increase the risk for women who may contract COVID-19.”

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says age, heart disease, and diabetes can all increase your chance of being severely ill with the Coronavirus. More so, weight gain, which may be caused by menopause, can also complicate matters.

Menopause impacts immunity

Frustratingly, for women in menopause, a decrease in oestrogen could potentially cause increased vulnerability to severe symptoms. “There is some investigational research data suggesting oestrogen may be somewhat protective for women exposed to the Coronavirus,” Dr DePree says.

Menopause itself can therefore impact immunity, says Dr DePree. “Immunity is a complex issue that is impacted by multiple factors — some of which we control, and some less so,” she says. The hormone oestrogen is shown to have a protective role in women, so women who are not on hormone therapy during menopause might be more at-risk than those without a decline in oestrogen.

Inflammation is yet another issue. According to studies, as women age, inflammatory levels increase — leading to pain, autoimmune issues, weight gain, and susceptibility to illness.

So, it’s not that menopause in and of itself can put you at-risk, but the health factors associated with menopause can create complications.

What you can do right now to support your physical and mental health during menopause and Coronavirus?

Aside from consulting with your doctor about any potential health issues, such as heart health and diabetes, you’ll want to engage in beneficial lifestyle activities that can help you stay healthier during menopause and during quarantine, when health issues are compounded by both loss of routine and chronic anxiety.

There are plenty of lifestyle modifications you can make (or re-explore!) to protect your body and keep yourself healthy — especially during a pandemic when you need to stay healthy. This starts with maintaining social distancing and protecting yourself by avoiding crowds, as well as washing your hands and disinfecting your home regularly.

1. Eat well

Menopause can also bring with it some frustrating weight management obstacles. Coupled with the fact that quarantine and other pandemic stressors — such as a loss of income — can cause the stress hormone cortisol to exacerbate health issues and further weight gain, it’s important to fuel your body with healthful, nutrient filled foods and stay away from sugary, processed ones.

2. Embrace movement

During this time in the pandemic, when mobilization within the country is restricted and exercise at home may not be easy, holding yourself accountable to the task is key. Maintaining or achieving a healthy body weight takes effort, day in and day out. It requires attention to detail.

Movement is critical — but you don’t need a gym with expensive equipment to make it happen. “With most of us at home, it is more realistic to do multiple brief exercise interludes in the day,” Dr DePree says. You might think of resistance work using your own body weight, weights, yoga, stretching, using the stairs more. You can even set up a virtual workout session with friends on FaceTime or Zoom.

3. Stick to a routine or establish a new one

Beyond working out to maintain weight, regular, routine workouts help stabilise hormone levels, according to Dr DePree. “When you stay in a fitness routine, the adrenal glands, which control our stress pathways, stay calm. I know a lot of routines have been disrupted by this pandemic — so you may even need to create a new routine to stay healthy.”

Beyond regular movement, your routine should also include self-care and drinking loads of water, she says. “Water is the fuel the body runs on. I suggest taking your body weight and dividing it in half. That’s how many ounces per day you need.”

4. Practice good sleep hygiene

Another routine you’ll want to adopt? A healthy bedtime.

Try to think of your bedtime as a respite from the daily anxiety of a global pandemic.

“When women go into menopause and their hormones are out of balance, they may have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep,” Dr DePree says. “Study after study shows that sleep really helps your metabolism, so not getting the right amount and type of sleep can really affect your ability to lose or maintain weight as you age and in times of stress.”

5. Consider hormone therapy

“We are not suggesting that women necessarily start hormones as a result of this pandemic,” Dr DePree says, “but the findings that fewer women are dying from the virus versus men, and that oestrogen may be a factor, hopefully will lead to a better and broader understanding of our immune systems, gender differences, and to be better able to inform women on making those treatment decisions.” If you are having bothersome menopausal symptoms, check with your doctor about what hormone therapy could be right for you. There are more safe and low-dose options available than ever before.

Good support network – A MUST!

All of this can take a real toll on you, especially if you don’t have a proper support network in place. A good doctor, an understanding spouse or family, and supportive friends are a must, as menopause can be emotionally and physically exhausting. You’ll also want to seek good preventative care by getting regular mammograms, colonoscopies and other screenings.

Give yourself a break

Introduce self-care into your daily life, even if it’s only for a few moments each day or scattered throughout your day as small breaks. We recommend trying new things. If you’ve always wanted to journal, do yoga, or start meditating, NOW is that time. And stay connected with others through phone calls and conversations. Human connection can bolster our wellbeing in ways we don’t even realise—especially if we’re self-isolating alone.

If all of this feels overwhelming, know that you are not alone — and that you can take control of your health and wellness with small, doable changes each day. The benefits of self-care are multi-layered, helping us to feel better when everything around us seems chaotic and uncertain and allowing us an outlet to express emotion or find solace. It’s a win-win for the body and mind !