27 July 2012

Menopause may weaken women physically

As women go through menopause, they may see a decline in their ability to carry groceries, climb stairs and get other routine tasks done.


As women go through menopause, they may see a decline in their ability to carry groceries, climb stairs and get other routine tasks done, a new study suggests.

Exactly why is not clear, though extra pounds and depression symptoms seemed to account for some of the link.

"There is something going on during menopause. There is definitely a connection between menopause and the physical limitations women perceive themselves as having," said lead researcher Lisa Tseng, a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh. According to Tseng, her findings suggest that the physiological changes of menopause play a role.

Losing muscle mass as we age

Body composition, for example, tends to change - with an increase in fat and decrease in muscle mass. And with the decline in estrogen levels, bone mass dips as well. Men also lose muscle mass and strength as they age, but studies have found that women's strength decline seems to speed up around menopause.

The bottom line for women is to stay physically active as they age, according to Dr Timothy Church, who was not involved in the new study.

And that should include aerobic exercise and strength training to help maintain muscle mass, said Dr Church, a researcher at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

How the study was done

The study, reported in Menopause, surveyed more than 2 200 US women in their 40s and 50s. Overall, three-quarters of postmenopausal women had at least moderate physical limitations - whether in their ability to exercise or to accomplish routine things like household chores.

In contrast, only 10% of premenopausal women said the same thing. And even when Tseng's team factored in age, weight and health conditions such as arthritis, depression and diabetes, menopause itself was still linked to a three-fold increase in the odds of physical limitations.

Dr Church says it's not clear what may be happening during and after menopause to affect a woman's physical function. In an interview, he noted that both men and women lose muscle mass - typically at a rate of 1% to 2% per year after age 50. At the same time, studies show, they become less active.

No one is sure whether the muscle loss or the inactivity typically comes first. "You could debate that forever," Dr Church said.

Regular exercise helps

But what studies do show is that when postmenopausal women (and older men) get regular exercise, their physical health and mental well-being often improve.

"When we can get these people active," Dr Church said, "it amazes me how it's not only their physical health that improves. Their quality of life improves."

In their own research with postmenopausal women, Dr Church and his colleagues have found that even when women are overweight and sedentary, starting an exercise routine can improve their fitness levels, blood vessel function and sleep quality.

He recommended that women take up both aerobic exercise and some type of weight training. Aerobic exercise can be as simple as taking a walk for 30 minutes on most days of the week. "The resistance training takes a little more homework," he said.

Older women often resist the idea of using weights at first, Dr Church said. "But once they start doing it, they love it. It makes it easier to carry your groceries, or to pick up your grandkid."

(Reuters Health, July 2012)

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