They've been through the menopause. So where are the Zimmer frames and tracksuit bottoms? New research shows that most women feel better than ever after 'the change'. No wonder, says Virginia Ironside - it's all that free time and uninhibited sex

I can still remember the time when 30 seemed over the hill. And when I was 30, 40 seemed pretty ancient. But when I was 40, all I could see was a terrible brick wall ahead, with the dreadful word "MENOPAUSE" written on it in jagged letters. Naturally, no one pre-menopause dared even consider what might lie over that wall. A graveyard full of skulls and crossbones? A field full of ancient people on Zimmer frames with pee pouring down their legs? At best, it was just a sea of asexual oldies, all wearing trackie bottoms, with frightful short haircuts and no make-up who lived their lives in motorway service stations, set in a land of aches and pains and poverty, all marinated in bitterness and complaints.

Now there's no question that during the menopause things can feel grim. Hot flushes, children leaving home, desperate feelings that it's "too late" to do anything you wanted to, but once over that, most women find that life post-menopause is one of nature's best-kept secrets. According to a survey commissioned for Health Plus magazine, 72 per cent of women think they are "just as attractive as before", 82 per cent feel "as feminine as before", eight out of 10 say they now have an overwhelming "sense of freedom" and six out of 10 women say they feel "better than ever before". They also feel an average of 10 years younger than their real age.

The menopause, in other words, is something to be looked forward to, rather than dreaded.

There's the obvious plus, of course. No fears of pregnancy, which means that you can sleep with whoever you like without taking any precautions, in the full knowledge that there's not a chance of an unwanted baby appearing on the scene. This knowledge makes a lot of women feel they can throw inhibition to the wind, and many have an infinitely jollier sex-life post-menopause than pre. Then there are none of the problems of periods. Most women get used to the physical aspect of the "curse", but I remember going through my diary every year in January, marking out when my periods were due, and writing, a week before: "Might feel weird" just to remind myself that this was the time my personality might take on weepy or monstrous dimensions. After the menopause, not only do most women begin to feel far more even in their temperament, but that infuriating male remark "Are you on your period?" (delivered patronisingly just after you've let rip over a completely righteous cause) withers on men's lips when there are no more periods to be had.

Lack of anything to nurture can be a sadness, but oddly, post-menopause, maternal feelings find other outlets. Relationships with younger people are far more rewarding when you're older. When your past is greater than your future, you will, if you're anything like me, find that it's far easier to make relationships with younger people because post-50, you are no threat and can often take on a liberal parent role.

Many people hate the idea that death is nearer than it used to be. But I think that being able to see it sharply in the distance makes it less frightening. You can see most clearly how you might like to spend the rest of your life. No longer do you imagine that there is any chance of your becoming a world-famous ice-skater. It may be sad to lose your dreams in one way, but in another this loss makes life so much more realistic.

The confidence you get post-menopause is another huge plus. Again, I'm sure a lot of this is due to the levelling out of those frightful fluctuating hormones. If someone suggests a film you don't want to see, it's far easier to say, simply, that no, you don't want to go. If you're threatened with going to a god-daughter's clarinet concert in a freezing church hall, no one will blame you if you declare that you are rather "too old for that sort of thing". At the same time, there are young lovers to be had, at least until sex becomes more "ouch!" than "aaah!". And, until the arthritis settles in for good, you can still dance and walk and leap about.

For me, post-50 is the golden age of life. The French have a saying: "Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait" - which, roughly translated, means "if only the young knew what life was all about, if only the old were able to put this knowledge into action". Post-menopause is exactly the time when both are possible. We really do have the best of all worlds.

Men get old like everyone else, but they don't have this clearly defined moment when everything falls into place. Nor do they have the huge hormonal changes, which can, when finally levelled out, finally give women stability and self-knowledge.

Most people have more money than they ever had before, and more leisure time. Thousands of post-menopausal women take on new careers or interests - joining book clubs, training to be counsellors. They experience an extraordinary second flowering after the menopause.

I prefer a slightly different state. My idea of post-menopausal pleasure is less overt. It's enjoying the company of much younger friends, of still being attractive (I hope) and being able to flirt with more confidence, of suddenly enjoying the luxury of giving things away rather than acquiring them, and of enjoying a more even temperament and being able at last to take the long view, rather than seeing everything as close-up and personal.

In fact, I'd recommend the menopause to any woman, and the sooner the better.

Make the most of your menopause

The average woman in the UK starts to go through the menopause at 51, and the process literally means the last menstrual period she will have.

Many women will experience a "climacteric" period for several years before the actual menopause begins, during which their hormone levels begin to fluctuate and their ovarian function begins to decline, causing erratic, heavy periods and other symptoms that include mood swings.

Many of the symptoms related to menopause are caused by the drop in levels of oestrogen and progesterone at this time.

Around 70 per cent of women will suffer hot flushes, anxiety, joint aches and palpitations while going through "the change". Other problems include loss of libido, night sweats, depression and dry skin. While some women experience few problems, others suffer severe physical and emotional changes.

Women are said to be "post-menopausal" when a year has elapsed since their last period. As hormone levels stabilise, either naturally or through Hormone Replacement Therapy, the symptoms disappear and many women feel better than they have in years.

HOW TO COPE

Try hormone replacement therapy. Some studies have shown that it can increase the risk of breast cancer and heart disease and it is not right for all women, but it can still be very effective in alleviating symptoms of the menopause. Consult your GP.

Take supplements. Calcium will boost bone health, while Vitamin E can help with night sweats and vaginal dryness. Special formulations such as Menopace may also be effective.

Try evening primrose oil. It has been used for centuries to treat menopause-related problems such as bloating, breast discomfort and irritability.

Stop smoking. It can aggravate hot flushes, while nicotine and other toxins in cigarettes interfere with the absorption of nutrients such as calcium that are vital during the menopause.

Reduce caffeine intake. It can trigger hot flushes and cause headaches.

Eat healthily. Foods that contain phytoestrogens - plant substances that mimic oestrogen - can help, and a good source is soya. Oily fish contains Omega-3 fatty acids that can protect the heart and Vitamin E-rich products such as wholewheat bread and cereals can reduce the symptoms of the menopause.

Exercise. Regular exercise will strengthen bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. In one study, half of menopausal women who followed a resistance-training programme for eight weeks said they had fewer hot flushes and headaches, were less stressed and had a higher sex drive.

Go herbal. Black cohosh has been shown to reduce hot flushes while red clover is a natural form of oestrogen.

Try acupuncture. One study found that monthly acupuncture treatments resulted in the same changes in hormone levels as HRT. The therapy also appears to be particularly useful in alleviating hot flushes, anxiety and depression.

Drink wine. A glass of red wine a day can help to reduce the risk of heart disease among menopausal women.

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