Nearly every woman (almost 80 percent) experiences some hot flashes and night sweats when going through menopause, but a new study from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pennsylvania, reports that these annoying—sometimes debilitating—symptoms are not the same in all women.
It’s the latest in a number of studies showing that the intensity, frequency and duration of hot flashes and night sweats can be influenced by a number of different factors. Researchers, led by Rebecca Thurston, PhD, professor and director of the Women’s Biobehavioral Health Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, found that race, body weight and diet all play a role in flashes and sweats.
Nearly 1500 women were tracked for fifteen years to chart the course of the menopausal symptoms. The researchers were able to identify four, basic symptoms patterns in the group, they were also surprised to find that symptoms could last as long as 7 to 10 years for some women. The patterns discovered were:
▪ Early—11 years before the final menstrual period) onset and declining after menopause.
▪ Late—symptoms that begin within months of the final menstrual period, but lasting for a longer period after menopause than those of the women in the early group
▪ Early symptoms that occur at a high frequency.
▪ Low frequency symptoms throughout the menopausal transition.
Ethnicity and lifestyle factors shaped symptom patterns in many groups. Chinese women, for instance, were less likely to have symptoms in general. Women with lower levels of education and those who were moderate to heavy drinkers were more likely to have symptoms for a longer time. While the education issues has not been explained, other research has reported that alcohol consumption can trigger hot flashes.
The study expanded on the increasingly complex information about black women and menopause. The research team found that black women were more likely to have menopausal symptoms in general, though smaller studies have found conflicting results. A Black Women’s Health Study analysis found that smoking had the most impact on whether black women went through menopause early, as it did with white women. A small study from the Yale School of Nursing found that black women had the same symptoms as white women, but were more likely to have vasomotor symptoms only—those related to blood vessel constriction—such as bloating or dizziness. And a large study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2015, found that black women’s vasomoter symptoms lasted longer (up to 14 years) than women from other ethnic groups.
In the University of Pittsburgh study, women who were obese were also more likely to have early onset of symptoms, in the decade before periods stop, than others. Depressed or anxious women also experienced symptoms earlier in life.
Women with a lower body mass index (a measurement based on weight and height), those who smoked and black women were all more likely than others to have symptoms occur later and declined gradually in the following decade, the researchers said.
The findings should trigger more research about the causes of hot flashes and night sweats, Thurston said.
The patterns aren’t hard and fast, Thurston explained in a university interview. They are simply associations, not cause-and-effect relationships.
Thurston hasn’t studied whether changing some factors, such as losing weight or quitting smoking, could help. “We’re looking at that now,” she said.
Learn more about menopause.