How Menopause Differs in Cultures Around the World
If you’re biologically female, you will have hormonal shifts and stop menstruating at some point, likely by your mid-50s. This is biology, plain and simple. It’s nothing new and happens to women everywhere.
What doesn’t? Menopause hell.
The fascinating cultural differences are how severe perimenopause symptoms are, how women (and men) feel about menopause and what’s of top concern. There’s evidence that all of it may play into how difficult perimenopause and aging journeys.
TLDR: Yes, perimenopause might be harder in the US than other cultures.
Lifestyle, diet and environment likely factor in. For example, the prevalence of soy and other plants in the Asian diet combined with mindfulness in asian cultures may be a reason (LINK) that even Asian women in the US have an easier time than American women of other races.
It’s more than that, though. Thompson said. “When looking at different countries, variations in symptom reporting can be attributed to language differences, culturally shaped expectations about menopause, culturally influenced gender roles and socioeconomic status.”
Facebook group titles alone speak volumes. Names like the Impolite Fuckery of Menopause, Menopause Sucks and so on tell signal to women that it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Yet a Japanese group might be called “Growth and Reawakening.” Menopause around the world varies more wildly than we might think,
What the Study Shows
A 2005 American Journal of Medicine article titled “A universal menopausal syndrome?” questioned the validity that menopause is destined to be a certain way. Worldwide, the symptoms differed enough, and the data was not complete enough to say the “syndrome” has to be a certain way.
Then a 2015 survey of 8,200 North American and European women and men revealed the Perimenopause Suffering Gap.
Researchers reviewed results from an online survey asking 8,200 older men and women in North America and Europe how menopause impacted their sex lives and relationships and found similar complaints in different countries. But the magnitude of suffering for typical symptoms such as vaginal dryness, hot flashes and weight gain varied by nationality.
Lead study author Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, professor at Yale Medical School and menopause expert was quoted saying, “In societies where age is more revered and the older woman is the wiser and better woman, menopausal symptoms are significantly less bothersome.
Where older is not better, many women equate menopause with old age, and symptoms can be much more devastating.”
Well, the United States has been found to be one of the most ageist countries on earth - and on this earth, 1 of every 2 people is considered ageist.
The study found many “symptoms” were far more common for women in the US, Canada and the UK. And women in these countries were the most likely to find perimenopause harder than expected. French women agreed.
Yet women in countries like Italy and Sweden reported far fewer symptoms.
Generally, egalitarian Scandinavians were unbothered and thriving through menopause. Women in Denmark, Sweden and Norway reported a better-than-expected perimenopause.
The Male Factor
Men from the U.S., U.K. and Canadian also were more likely to report issues with their partners. Overall, men found mood swings and vaginal pain during sex to be the most common issues, whereas women were more concerned about sleep issues and gaining weight.
The Asian Mindset
It’s interesting to compare this Western experience (and really, English-speaking) with the relatively lower rates of menopausal misery in Asia.
The Japanese word that’s equivalent to menopause is called konenki. Let’s break that word down:
Ko - renewal/regeneration
En - years
Ki - energy or season
Hmm.. a time period of regenerative energy. Not the harsh “month stop or periods stop” that menopause literally translates to. Or worse the “Dried Up,” “Old Bag” or worse that’s been hovering around the corners of our culture. For us it’s been framed as a dead end. No renewal, no growth, no new energy.
In Japan the span of this renewal period is considered to be early 40s to 60ish, which is around the span Wile followers told they see midlife (though not necessarily menopause or perimenopause). In Japan this is a season when the body loses then regains a new balance, with both cultural and biological factors beyond getting a period.
A 1980s study by Margaret Locke showed that while 85% of American women then had hot flashes, about 12% of Japanese women did. Their language does not even have a word for hot flash.
In China, this is also a time categorized more as a “rebirth” than an ending. Research in China has shown women generally have fewer hot flashes than Western women and do not feel shame around any symptoms or the lifestage. Urban Chinese women do experience more symptoms than rural women there, which is not surprising given how stress effects our bodies and possibly even how Western culture has influenced urban Chinese lifestyle.
North America didn’t always have negative associations with perimenopause and aging. And in some communities, it still doesn’t.
The Mayan culture that once ruled much of Latin America is still alive in the Yucatán in Mexico. The language is still spoken in areas, for example. Researchers in indigenous women’s health found that thes women do not seem to experience the hot flashes, sleep issues and mood swings that become an expected part of perimenopause in the US.
There’s evidence across indigenous cultures from Mexico to Canada that menopause was a last initiation for women. A time they were able to retain their LINK: “wise blood” and the energy that comes along with it, instead of releasing it in their monthly cycle.
This time of initiation and transition into Wise Woman gave them a spiritual leadership within their clans, perhaps even shamanic and higher powers. Not surprisingly, these culturals often had a matriarchial position of influence within their tribes, vs the invisibility we have been told to expect once we hit that much feared “Last Fuckable Day” made famous by Amy Schumer.
What’s more appealing? Regenerated energy or Wise Woman powers, or being relegated to caring for aging parents, cookie swaps and sensible shoes?
Enter the Awakened Women
We can’t change the culture overnight, nor re-program ourselves, our bosses or our partners. No one has time or the ability to unravel generations of conditioning on women’s worth.
But we can remind ourselves that there is nothing wrong with us. Perimenopause is natural, so changing through the years. What’s not natural? Expecting ourselves to be forever 35 (btw, great podcast).
At Wile, we embrace midlife as a time of link: Awakening when we use our shifting hormones and lives as Nature’s way of coaxing us to tune back in to our higher selves. It is truly the time to prioritize what matters most to us vs clinging to old expectations or other people’s needs.
Be gentle with yourself. Wile’s regimens are designed to work with the things that show up for you. Because in any country or culture, different women experience different things. You may need extra Hot Flash support, or want to hit up some Un-Anger to get through rough days. Who doesn’t? Lives are stressful and we are here to help.
Want some insight into what support you may need?
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Go forth and be awesome!
Photo Credit: Frank McKenna, Unsplash
Madden, Sharen, et al. "First Nations Women's Knowledge of Menopause Experiences and Perspectives" Can Fam Physician, Sept 2010
Minkin, Mary Jane, et al. 2015. Prevalence of postmenopausal symptoms in North America and Europe. Menopause Nov 22, 2015
Avis, N., et al. 2005. A universal menopausal syndrome? Am. J. Med., 118(Suppl 12B), 37–46.
Rappaport, Lisa, 2015. “Culture may influence how women experience menopause.” Reuters Health June 3 2015 (link no longer active)
Robb, Alice “Yes, Japanese People Have Sex. But Do They Have Menopause?” New Republic, November 22, 2013
Melby, M., et al. 2005. Culture and symptom reporting at menopause. Human Reproduction Update, 11 (5), 495–512.
Martin, M., et al. 1993. Menopause without symptoms: The endocrinology of menopause among rural Mayan Indians. Am. J. Obstet. Gyn., 168 (6)
West, M. Celebrating the change.
This article is intended for informational purposes and is not intended to replace a one-on-one medical consultation with a professional. Wile, Inc researches and shares information and advice from our own research and advisors. We encourage every woman to research, ask questions and speak to a trusted health care professional to make her own best decisions.