By Rachel Lankester, Founder of the Magnificent Midlife Movement
I’m known for standing up for menopause! I often see menopause statistics or facts quoted on social media and I question their validity, whether they’ve been communicated with context, why they’ve been mentioned at all and whether they’re true.
I watched a great little video on Instagram about normalizing menopause. The video itself was really empowering and I thought, wow that’s great. Shame I’m not in it. But in the blurb that went alongside this video about menopause was the following comment:
“We can talk about empowerment all we want, but [a] lot of us are having a hard time, in our bodies as well as our minds. Let’s not forget that according to the latest numbers from the UK Office for Statistics, the age group with the highest rate of suicide is women ages 50 to 54.”
What do the statistics really tell us?
This is a statistic I often see connected to menopause. But the last statement is actually plain wrong. It’s true that amongst women the highest rate of suicide is the age group 50-54. But the age group with the highest rate of suicide overall is men 44-59 and the figure is three times that of women. In fact men in all age groups have a far higher rate of suicide than women.
So it’s simply not true to say that the age group with the highest rate of suicide is women ages 50-54. The rate of male suicide is greater than that of women in every age group except 15-19. It is true to say that the group with the highest rate of suicide for women is ages 50-54.
Below is the chart from the Office of National Statistics in the UK where you can see that even in this group we’re only talking about 6.9 women per 100,000 of population in the 50-54 bracket compared to 25.5 men per 100,000 in the 45-49 bracket.
Yes, any suicide number is awful but knowing this, doesn’t it take away some of the sting of the statistic mentioned above? Even when the statistics are correct, context is still crucial.
What really upsets me, and which I keep seeing mentioned in the media and suggested by others, is this correlation between the higher rate of female suicide and menopause. I believe this is pure conjecture and not based in fact nor research. This article presents a case that not only are there errors in the facts we believe about menopause, but there are so many other things going on to cause anxiety and depression during the menopause years.
Menopause may be a contributing factor to midlife malaise in women and if you are suffering from depression, please ask for help. But I believe it is irresponsible and verging on scaremongering to conflate menopause with higher rates of suicide in women.
I’ve sat on this for ages and the time has come to put fingers to keyboard! I feel a need to set the record straight on misrepresented menopause statistics that suit a particular agenda.
Women, menopause and work
I hate it when facts are taken out of context, or are just plain wrong, especially when it relates to menopause. Women so need truth about this topic! At time of writing I’m trying to speak to ITV to get a ‘fact’ corrected which has been on their website for five years and which has been quoted even by a UK Member of Parliament, but is actually false.
This ‘fact’ is that one in four women considers leaving work because of menopause issues. ITV claims this is based on a research survey they did with women’s health research charity Wellbeing of Women in 2016.
I have spoken to Wellbeing of Women who told me there was no such joint survey and also to Professor Myra Hunter, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Health Psychology at Kings College London, who did the menopause research for Wellbeing of Women, and who said “I am not aware of this survey being published nor who authored it.”
There was a research survey done on menopause in 2019 by Wellbeing of Women and Professor Hunter, but ITV was not involved and there was no finding that one in four women consider leaving work because of menopause issues.
The ITV claim is blatantly false. Some women may consider leaving work because of menopause but there is no published research or evidence of this. Professor Hunter also said, “In my reading of the research literature, the evidence of women’s work performance being adversely affected specifically by the menopause is inconclusive.”
I have complained on ITV’s website, I have emailed them and I have tried to speak to them on Twitter. They continue to ignore me. I’m not going to include the article link here because I don’t want to give it more credence, but if you search for women considering leaving work due to menopause in Google you will find it.
This false menopause statistic has become truth and is quoted ad infinitum. It adds weight to negative narratives about menopause but is simply not true. It is not based on credible research. If the 2016 survey was done at all, it was done by ITV without Wellbeing of Women and it was neither published nor peer-reviewed.
Why does ITV quote this ‘statistic’ and leave it on their website five years after the program aired? Because it helped them originally get viewers for their program about menopause and continues to make them money from advertising now.
When it comes to how menopause, and aging in general for women, are regularly presented, I have found there is often money lurking somewhere in the background.
What else might be going on concerning menopause and suicide rates?
So returning to suicide and menopause statistics, what else might be going on for women aged 50-54 to make it when there are more suicides than at other times? I have lots of ideas about that!
1. Women are taught from a very young age that we are only valuable when we are young and fertile. Girls are told that they become women when they go through puberty so what does that mean for us older women when we go through puberty in reverse?
Do we stop being real women? I think many women actually fear this to be the case! We can believe it’s the ultimate confirmation that life is on a downward slope (rubbish!). I know when I went through early menopause at 41, my initial reaction was to see myself destined to a life as a shriveled up old prune sitting in the corner and of no value to anyone.
Society taught me to view menopause in that way, because in the West we worship youth, the fertility that goes with it, and the beauty and value that we ascribe to it. So is it any wonder that we might be a bit anxious as we go through our 40s and into our 50s about what it all means? I would argue it’s not menopause to blame for this midlife malaise, but rather how we have been taught to feel about it.
2. Have you heard of the U-curve of happiness? Yes it’s a real thing. It’s been scientifically proven (with actual research this time) that we’re happiest at the beginnings and ends of our lives. Research shows that 47 is our most unhappy age.
There may actually be nothing in particular making you unhappy; it’s just a natural phase of life. And it affects men and women. It’s the middle that can get us down, simply because it’s the middle. Feelings of discontent, restlessness and even sometimes worthlessness are not unexpected.
Plus the big birthday soul-searching can make it all the worse. Yes that’s a thing too and the big 50 is a pretty major milestone for most of us. We’re still tied to those outdated ideas of what we should have achieved by a particular age, forgetting as we are wont to do, that we all have different lives, are on different trajectories and that comparison is the thief of joy.
We may suffer depression in the middle, but hopefully once we’re through that, the only way is up. If your 40s and 50s are gloomy, there’s every chance that later the fog will begin to lift. Clearly there are other factors that may prevent that, but all things being equal that’s the normal trajectory of life. The U-curve holds.
3. We’ve been taught to perceive midlife (which is when menopause usually happens) as a crisis. Just search midlife in Google and all you get back is midlife crisis. But I prefer Brené Browns’ interpretation of midlife as an unravelling: “a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control.”
For women especially, it’s when we often start questioning who we really are and what we want from life. Hormonal changes can add to our sense of discombobulation. Menopause is a big life marker reminding us of how long we’ve already lived and highlighting what time we likely have left to do whatever it is we want to do in this world.
So yes it’s a time of introspection and potential inner turmoil but again, it’s not the actual menopause transition that’s responsible, rather, various different elements all coming to a head and exacerbated by the fact that our hormones are impacting us as much as they do during puberty.
4. Midlife is also a time when women in particular are subject to a whole litany of other stress and depression inducing circumstances. We may be coping with difficult teenagers or struggling to adapt to an impending or actual empty nest. We may be caring for older parents and shouldering the brunt of those responsibilities.
We may be encountering ageism in the workplace, feeling side-lined and ignored when previously we were on an upwards trajectory, just like a man would be in his 40s and 50s. But the insidious combination of sexism and ageism makes it far more difficult for women to get visibly older than men. Men become silver foxes, women are accused of letting themselves go if they embrace their natural older hair color. Thank you patriarchy.
Again follow the money: a lot of people get rich persuading us that actually looking like an older woman is bad, making us fight getting older. And when do we see the most accelerated signs of aging in women? It’s often in our 50s when our faces and bodies really begin to change if they haven’t already. Another contender for the midlife malaise.
5. Women simply don’t have enough good information about how to manage their menopause so, as well as the distressing emotional impact already discussed, the physical symptoms can become debilitating. Doctors often aren’t much better equipped, prescribing drugs for depression rather than recognizing that hormones could be out of balance and the impact that can have. But this absolutely shouldn’t be the case.
I was able to reverse my early menopause diagnosis by making dietary and lifestyle changes. My mission now is to ensure that women have the information they need, when they need it, which is often earlier than they think, so that they don’t need to struggle with menopause. Just sorting out their diet and balancing blood sugar levels can have a major impact on women’s experience of menopause, but the majority of discussion is still concentrated on trying to fix it, usually by taking hormone replacement therapy.
I have written extensively about how I believe menopause symptoms are actually the body’s early warning system. It’s trying to tell us that there are things we need to change about how we live if we want to enjoy long-term health. This includes cutting back on things like caffeine, alcohol, processed food and sugar which we may have enjoyed in our youth, but which our menopausal bodies are less able to cope with.
It can mean adding in things we didn’t necessarily consider before, like more vegetables and natural phytoestrogens in the form of flaxseed and organic soy, for example. It also includes cutting back on the toxins in our environment, whether that be in the food we eat by going more organic, or the personal and household cleaning products we use.
It means perhaps losing some weight if we’re a bit too heavy, making sure we get enough exercise which has been proven to reduce menopause issues and working hard to optimize our mental health because if anything is going to cause us to suffer during menopause, it is stress. I have no doubt that it was stress that caused my early menopause diagnosis.
Please help me set the record straight
So please, let’s all stay curious about menopause statistics that are quoted as fact. Find out where they come from and whether it’s a reputable and trustworthy source. Follow the trail back to the actual research before assuming it is true. I had assumed ITV was reputable but they have had incorrect menopause statistics sitting on their website for years!
If you hear these particular statistics being quoted, please direct people here or just tell them that the information is false or inconclusive. I want the world to stop blaming menopause by default for the majority of what can go wrong in midlife, leading to sadness and even depression. Instead I want women to embrace it as the gift prompting us to get our lives sorted that it can be.
And let’s stop scaring women, both those in menopause and the ones coming up behind, by upholding a doom and gloom approach to this important and empowering transition in a woman’s life.
Let’s instead start listening to our bodies, being curious about what else is going on and working to improve all of that rather than lumping the problems all on menopause and ignoring the rest. It’s working on all of it that will reduce suicide rates for women in midlife. Not just making menopause better.
Yes let’s talk lots more about menopause, but not in isolation. That’s not doing women any favors and will not bring about the overall change that women and society so desperately need.
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Rachel Lankester is founder of the Magnificent Midlife Movement, host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast, a midlife mentor and editor of the Mutton Club online magazine. After an initially devastating early menopause at 41, she dedicated herself to helping women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life, helping them cope better with menopause and ageing in general, and create magnificent next chapters. She’s been featured in/on BBC Woman’s Hour, The Huffington Post, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, The Age Buster, Woman’s Weekly, Prima Magazine, eShe, Tatler HK and Woman’s Own amongst others. She believes we just get better with age.