International Women’s Day: The truth about disability and menopause

This International Women’s Day (8 March), Dr Samantha Wild, clinical lead for women’s health at Bupa Health Clinics, shines a light on the physical and emotional challenges disabled people may face when they reach menopausal age – and what support is available. 

Women with disabilities experience the same physical effects of the menopause, including hot flushes and night sweats, but it’s often overlooked. In this exclusive feature for Enable Magazine, Dr Samantha Wild shares the truth about the ways menopause can affect women with disabilities.

From less awareness of bodily changes, to menopause symptoms overlapping with other health conditions, Dr Wild covers the barriers women with disabilities may face, and how to tackle them. 

Menopause has no impact on people with disabilities: FALSE

The evidence that we have through limited research suggests that women with learning disabilities – and in particular, Down’s syndrome – tend to go through menopause earlier than other women. 

Menopause can be a very confusing time for people with physical or learning disabilities, as their menopausal symptoms may overlap with the symptoms of any health condition they already have. For example:

  • Heightened anxiety may be attributed to a person’s disability, however up to one third of women report that they feel more nervous or anxious than they have done previously, when they reach menopausal age.
  • Those going through the menopause may experience tingling in their extremities, which can happen because of the body’s oestrogen levels falling.
  • People with disabilities may experience joint pain, which may be harder to decipher the cause of when they reach the menopause.

People with a learning disability often don’t know they’re going through the menopause: TRUE 

Current research shows us that people with learning disabilities may not be as aware of menopausal symptoms compared to other women, so they might not understand the changes happening to their body. 

Women with disabilities may be reliant on healthcare professionals or those who care for them to raise the topic of menopause in the first place.

Finding the right balance to inform about the menopause can be challenging, as it’s not necessarily something that can be answered in one conversation, leaflet, or document. 

Lots of research has been conducted around disabilities and menopause: FALSE

At present, there are only small-scale studies in this area, meaning it’s difficult for us to come to clear conclusions on how menopause is experienced by people with disabilities, and how best to support them, depending on the disability they have. 

The lack of research in this area also means that it can be challenging to get the right compliance and approvals in place to give people with disabilities access to the right kinds of treatment. 

Menopause symptoms in people with a learning disability are often dismissed: TRUE

Unfortunately, it has often been the attitude that talking to people with learning disabilities about reproductive health isn’t high priority, as it’s thought that they were less likely to form romantic relationships and have children. 

What’s more, there has been little research into gender-specific needs in people with learning disabilities, meaning a lot of older women have had little support or preparation for these bodily changes.

The research we do have indicates that older women with learning disabilities already going through the menopause were aware that their periods would stop, but didn’t know that it signals that they’re no longer fertile.

People with a learning disability can’t have HRT: FALSE

Providing that there aren’t any underlying health conditions making HRT (hormone replacement therapy) unsuitable, it’s possible for people with learning disabilities to be prescribed HRT by a health professional.

Women with a learning disability need more menopause support: TRUE

Research shows that women with learning disabilities want other women to support them during the menopause.

It’s important to respect, acknowledge and help women with disabilities going through the menopause to get them appropriate support and treatment. Speaking to a health professional – for example, via Bupa’s menopause plan – can be highly beneficial, as it can help people with learning disabilities understand their symptoms, seek treatment and get into good practices to reduce any future health risks associated with the menopause, e.g., osteoporosis. 

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