I’m 53 and a half and I’m still menstruating: is this a good thing?

On August 8th, I officially turned 53 and a HALF.  And yes, I revert to child-like ways of describing my age, because it’s how I think about it when I realize I’m still menstruating.  I’m the oldest person I personally know still having regular periods.  Gold star?

I started menstruating (“menarche,” to be technical) in October when I was 12, so soon, I will have been having periods for 41 years.  I’m old enough that the first period products I used were PADS WITH BELTS.

(For more history of menstruation stuff, there is the Museum of Menstruation; the design of the site is appalling — late 1990s-live-journal-era —  but if you poke around, there are some really fascinating bits of info — but I digress).

I had one time last year where my cycle was 42 days, but other than that, I’ve been creepily regular since 1977.  And since I’ve had no interruptions for pregnancy, breastfeeding, hormonal suppression or illness, that means that soon I will have my 533rd or so period.  (A gyne friend reminds me that with a 28 day cycle, we have an average of 13 periods per year). That is a LOT of bleeding and cramps and tampons and hormone swings and whatnot.

I decided a few years ago that I wasn’t going to take advantage of any new menstrual opportunities — I’m a tampon person, not a diva cup or period panties person — those seem like investments in a future for someone much younger.  And I’m not going to get an IUD with hormones that gradually suppress periods — I want to know when I actually stop.  I’m in this strange limbo where I menstruate but feel like the young ‘uns have a whole period culture that I’m never going to be part of.

But generally, I’m kind of neutral on my endless menstruating.  The science suggests that overall, it’s not a bad thing to have a late menopause (the medical definition of “menopause” is used when you have officially stopped having periods for a full year, and “late” is defined variably as after 52 – 55).  There IS an increased risk of reproductive cancers because of the extra estrogen — breast, ovarian and endometrial (and I had to have an endometrial biopsy a month ago because I had spotting and “my age makes me automatically suspicious”).  But on balance, later age at menopause is associated with better health, longer life and less cardiovascular disease.  That “better health” includes lower risk for heart disease and stroke, stronger bones, and a 13% higher chance of living to be 90.  I’ll take that.

But.  This “still bleeding after all these years” thing raise new questions when I think about my whole fit-at-midlife thing.  Like most other people-who-menstruate, I think I’ve learned to sort of pretend that my cycle is something that doesn’t “really” affect what I do in fitness-land.  When I used to run a lot, I did read once that we are at our most hormonally vibrant or some such the week after our periods, and that it might be a good time to schedule a race, but I can only vaguely recall why that might be, and I certainly never took that into consideration in making plans.  (Hello, Boston marathon people?  Could you please change the date?  I’ll have my period that week).

I’ve certainly always operated on the principle that your period isn’t supposed to slow you down.  My late 70s/early 80s adolescence was full of those girls-in-white-pants-dancing-around ads for tampons and pads, and even before that, there was cultural pressure not to let the world define us as weaker because of our uteruses.   When I was pubescent, there were a lot of these already-old brochures around the house, because my mother had taught phys ed and health in the 60s.  I pored over these booklets, produced by sanitary napkin companies.  They all assured me it was okay to dance or do sports — not too “strenuous”, but all the normal things.

There might be weepiness or smelliness, but these could be easily dealt with with enough sleep, the right attitude and the right products.

(That girl weeping at her dressing table has haunted me my whole life.  Maybe I AM being a drama queen!  I never did learn how to Smile, sister, smile!  Maybe when I learn that, I’ll stop menstruating?)

So it was official, periods weren’t going to slow me down — and mostly, they didn’t, despite some pretty hellish PMS for parts of my life.  (I might have been fighting with my spouse, but I was running! I do remember my ex saying to me once, when I came back from a sticky summer evening run all hormonally cranky — “don’t just stand there with bugs on your neck yelling at me!”)

But over the past several years, I feel like I could use some of these little brochures telling me what to expect in perimenopause, the period of time between which your hormones start to change and when you stop menstruating.  I’ve had night sweats and disrupted sleep for at least seven years, which are well known experiences of perimenopause.  But I’ve also noticed that I have almost overwhelming fatigue a few days before my period, sometimes just for a day, sometimes for several.  Like so much fatigue that I think I’m getting the flu and I take to my bed for a few hours.  (See, I am a weeping drama queen!)

This fatigue is a factor in my overall wellbeing, but it’s not something that is widely acknowledged or addressed. My family physician has never once asked me about my whole peri-meno experience, simply ticking off whether or not I’m still having periods.  And sometimes, other women can be reluctant to talk about feeling less … strong or fit or energetic or something — because of our periods.  I had a (female) ex who got irritated when I mentioned it, like it was a sign of wimpy weakness.  And I’ve had moms of teens say that they want to encourage their daughters to stay active and not be tagged with misogynist assumptions about weakness, so they don’t even really want to acknowledge that you might just want to lie on the couch. I get that — and, my own personal experience is that I get super tired and don’t WANT to do anything in the days before my period anymore. 

So… mostly, I don’t.  I think I’m like a Menstruator Emeritus now — with more than 530 periods under my belt, I think I’ve earned the right to do periods the way I want to.  And that means taking to my bed for a big nap if I feel like it, and not obfuscating why.  It means talking about the realities of night sweats and sleep disruption and slower metabolism.  And if I want to go for a 100km bike ride, I can do that too.  The only thing I won’t do is learn how to change a menstrual cup in a public washroom.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto and blogs here twice a month regularly and other times when she has something to say.  Here she is on her 53rd birthday.

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