Menopause: The knowledge gap

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UNIVERSITY PARK, PENN.-- It's what most women going through menopause really want to know: Is this normal? Unfortunately, according to new research, society and medicine just aren't doing a good job of providing a straight answer.

Phyllis Kernoff Mansfield, a health education researcher at Pennsylvania State University, and Ann Voda, a nursing professor at the University of Utah, surveyed 505 middle-aged, mostly college-educated women from around the country to explore fears about menopause and identify the root of any worries. When the women were asked where they'd learned about menopause, they gave some eye-opening responses.

For starters, their own doctors were surprisingly unhelpful: Only 16 percent of the women surveyed cited physicians or other health professionals as a key source of advice. Many said their doctors strongly urged them to take hormones such as estrogen to relieve hot flashes or vaginal dryness--but seemed uncomfortable addressing other issues. When one woman asked what changes to expect during menopause, her doctor suggested she talk to her mother about it.

So where were the women getting their information? The most common source-- cited by 40 percent--turned out to be friends. Books or magazines were mentioned by nearly a third, while mothers provided advice for 28 percent. Many also relied on TV news and comedy shows.

No matter where the women looked, most didn't get the answers they were searching for, says Mansfield. A recent glut of books on the topic hasn't seemed to help, according to even newer, unpublished survey results. All in all, she concludes, women simply have a hard time putting their hands on a basic explanation of what normal menopause is.

Her advice: Seek out information from organizations such as the National Women's Health Network in Washington, D.C. (they'll send you a packet of articles for $5). Or find out if there's a menopause support group in your community. Finally, be persistent with your doctor. Ask questions and, remember, you have every right to expect a full answer.

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by Ingfei Chen, Katherine Griffin and Rick Weiss

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