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The median age that a woman gets her period is 12.3, says Dr. Amanda Black, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. "There's always going to be a range: Some girls might be as young as eight, some might be 15," she says.
As for the belief that girls are getting their periods younger than ever, studies have linked higher weight gain in childhood to earlier menarche (a woman's first period). Fat cells produce more estrogen, but overall, "there have been no significant changes in the past 50 years," says Dr. Black.
The fertile years
By the age of 19, most women have settled into the average 28-day menstrual cycle (though "normal cycles" range from 21 to 35 days). Until your cycle has gotten into a natural rhythm, make sure you have pads and tampons on hand for the 450 periods and 3,500 days of menstruation in the average woman's lifetime. Most women will release 400 to 500 fertile eggs over the course of their lives, with the peak reproductive years occurring before the age of 34. "The rate of decrease in fertility accelerates after the age of 35," says Dr. Black.
Full-time breast-feeding causes anovulation (a temporary stop to ovulation), meaning regular periods won't return until a mother reduces feeding frequency. Though the likelihood of conception is diminished, you can still get pregnant during this time. Ovulation occurs before your period returns, so use birth control if you're not ready to conceive again.
Many women notice their cycles change after giving birth, says Dr. Black, but most variances following childbirth are related to age, weight and underlying medical conditions rather than pregnancy.
Transition to menopause
The average age of menopause—the end of menstruation and fertility—is 51. For six or seven years before menopause, women can experience symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness and a decreased libido. Periods can become unpredictable—appearing more frequently, disappearing for months or changing in flow. Many women will choose to wear panty liners, or stock up on pads and tampons for those "just in case" moments. But when is a woman truly menopausal? Wait for a year to pass since your last period. "There's no test to determine it," says Dr. Black. "It's a retrospective diagnosis."
For more on women's feminine care, check out the answers to your most pressing questions.
|This story was originally titled "Period Piece" in the May 2014 issue.|
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