Women are Closing One Gender Gap – and It’s Killing Them!

By Linda K. Armacost, Ed.D.

Secretary, La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club

“Women are responding to stress in ways that are closing the longstanding gaps between men and women when it comes to self-harm, substance abuse and risk-taking behavior.” So says a recent edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Drug overdose deaths among American women have more than tripledsince 1999, according Melissa Healy writing in the LA Times.

The research shows a frightening increase in fatal drug overdoses for women between 30 and 64, and there was a five-fold increase of drug deaths for women aged 55-64. A shocking 80% rise in suicides among women 45-64 since the turn of the century was also reported. The sharp increase in prescription opioids has contributed to the increases, however, heroin and benzodiazepines also rose sharply as did overdoses from cocaine and antidepressants. The average age of death from drug overdose is 46.5.

The CDC Report does not draw conclusions about the shocking increases in drug fatalities, only recommends healthcare providers pay attention to women around midlife.

I believe there are two major factors at work here: 1. the ubiquity of powerful drugs that are over-prescribed. 2. Healthcare providers not recognizing the symptoms of the menopause phase, and a failure to treat those symptoms.

As women approach mid-life, societal pressures begin to increase. It is a time when women are working to improve their careers and social status, many women are still raising children, and some find themselves in the
sandwich” generation, where they are caring for aging parents and children. While societal attitudes towards ”older” women are improving, women are still trying to overcome aging with plastic surgery, liposuction, frenzied workouts, and special age-defying diets. This is also the age when the menopause process begins.

I describe menopause as puberty in reverse. Puberty floods the adolescent brain and body with powerful hormones. These hormones prepare bodies for adulthood. Puberty can cause erratic emotional behavior, changes in sleeping patterns, and accelerated growth.

The journey toward menopause begins in the late 30’s and early 40’s as our hormone levels begin to diminish. Erratic emotions, sleep problems, foggy thinking, and unwanted weight gain are often attributed to outside pressures by women. To deal with these new problems, many women seek medical assistance for depression and anxiety believing this will relieve their symptoms.

15 years ago, my dissertation was published (Menogogy: The Art and Science of becoming a Crone: Changing perspectives on women, aging, and Adult Education). Iexhorted healthcare providers and adult educators to recognize the menopause process and its importance. The dissertation included a section on the patriarchal takeover of religion, medicine, and education. I also argue that the end of the menopause process is a discrete phase of adult development. Human women are unique among primates because they can spend a third of their lives in a state of infertility. “In a recent review of primate species, researchers found that humans are the only primates that don’t die within a few years of “’fertility cessation.”

I also conducted a qualitative study of nine women (I called them WOWmen)) ranging in age from 45 to 66, who were in perimenopause, menopause, post menopause, and one had surgical menopause. Their stories reinforce why it is critical for healthcare providers to understand menopause. My son graduated from medical school in 1997, the first year menopause was added to the curriculum!

Menopause can be challenging and rewarding depending where you are on the journey. The study revealed some common themes; changes in their bodies were upsetting, weight gain and graying hair for example. Increased emotionality and changes in sexual desire, “When I started crying during dog food commercials, I knew something was happening”, “There was a time when offered a banana split, or sex with my lover….ice cream won”.

The ‘happiest’ women in the study was also the oldest, Barbara at 66 who said; “This is the best time of life”. Which makes the increase in suicides for women 50-60 all the more tragic.

I don’t think that increased awareness of menopause by healthcare providers will prevent drug overdoses, there is no simplistic solution. It is up to women to understand what is going on in their bodies, there are literally hundreds of books about menopause out there. Do not fear menopause, embrace it! I close with a quote from Ursula LeGuin:

“The woman…must become pregnant with herself at last. She must bear herself, her third self, her old age with travail and alone. Not many will help her with that birth. It may well be easier to die if you have already given birth to others or yourself, at least once before. This would be an argument for going through all the discomfort and embarrassment of becoming a Crone. Anyhow it seems a pity to have a built-in rite of passage and to dodge it, evade it, and pretend nothing has changed. That is to dodge and evade one’s womanhood, to pretend one’s like a man. Men, once initiated, never get the second chance. They never change again. That’s their loss, not ours. Why borrow poverty”?

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