Shortly after turning 50, I had dinner with a group of girlfriends. Over great food and a fantastic bottle of pinot noir we chatted about kids, spouses, jobs, and politics, until the discussion eventually settled on sex.
At that time, I was still getting to know my new post-menopausal body, which seemed to present a different challenge every day. In addition to the extra pounds I started to pack on -- all of which eventually came off -- my eyes, hair, and skin were feeling drier than usual.
While I was happy to share notes with my friends on the best eye drops and hair conditioners to address the dryness, the new fitness program I was on, or how to stay cool during hot flashes, even in this 'safe place' among close friends I was loath to admit that sex wasn't as pleasurable as it once was and as a result wasn't as frequent . . . because of vaginal dryness.
I am not alone. Women's sense of self-esteem and power are tightly woven into our sexuality. In this youth-crazy society in which we live, admitting that our vaginas are changing -- even to our friends -- is like carrying a poster that states: "Ignore me. I'm over the hill." We rationalize that anyone can have dry eyes or hair, but only women who are getting old have dry vaginas (which isn't true). And, it's so easy to think that you're the only one who has the problem.
That couldn't be farther from the truth.
According to the North American Menopause Society (NAMS), vaginal dryness affects 75 percent of postmenopausal women. And most suffer in silence.
What's more, this common condition can have a negative impact on a woman's self-esteem and the relationship she has with her partner. A recent survey conducted by Novo Nordisk -- "Clarifying Vaginal Atrophy's Impact on Sex and Relationships" (CLOSER) -- studied the emotional and physical impact of vaginal discomfort on postmenopausal women and their male sex partners. Clearly, many women and men simply chose to stop having sex altogether, or if they did engage, it was painful. Here are a few stats from the survey:
- 58% of the women attributed vaginal discomfort to their avoidance of intimacy with their partners
- 64% reported experiencing a loss of libido
- 64% reported experiencing pain associated with sex
Sadly, while research shows that many women are simply too embarrassed to talk about the issue with their health care providers, they are just as reticent to bring it up. Result? Women are left dangling in limbo: wanting to fix it, but not sure how. (For tips on how to start the conversation, visit vaginaldiscomfort.com.)
Shortly after that dinner, I made the decision to write my first book, The Best of Everything After 50, to curate the best information from the best experts and resources in the country so women would be empowered to take control of their health, lives and sexuality.
One of those experts I turned to was my own OB/GYN. He initiated the conversation in his office after a thorough exam, during which he noted that the walls of my vagina were thinner and weren't as lubricated as they once were, and he wisely asked specific questions about my sex life: Was it ever uncomfortable? Was sex with my husband less frequent? Did I still want sex? He probed in a gentle way that helped him formulate a plan for treatment specific to my needs. It was the perfect patient-doctor partnership, for which I will always be grateful.
I was one of the lucky ones. But, most women do not have health care providers who are willing, or have the time, to initiate this kind of conversation, and offer treatment options. This is wrong.
To help foster the discussion among women, and between women and their health care providers, I have joined a powerful alliance -- GLAM™ (Great Life After Menopause), sponsored by Novo Nordisk -- comprised of women who are on a mission to encourage other women to stop suffering in silence. Through articles, interviews and other media initiatives, we hope to educate and empower women to reclaim their lives and enjoy sex again, instead of locking that door . . . forever.
Based on input from leading menopause experts, here are the best tips to help you feel empowered to take action:
- Know your body: Knowledge is power. The more you understand how your body works and how it can change over time, the more comfortable you'll be with what's happening. Check out websites that specifically address the symptoms of VA, such as vaginaldiscomfort.com and menopause.org. The more you know, the more empowered you will be.
- Understand the role of estrogen: When women go through menopause (which can take six years or more) production of estrogen slows down. After menopause (or if a woman has her ovaries removed), it stops completely. This creates all kinds of changes in the body, including vaginal dryness. Recognizing that the loss of estrogen is a natural occurrence that happens to all women -- and not just you -- will help to reframe how you think and talk about the effects of menopause.
- Take care of your body: For too long women have only cared about taking care of others. But now's the time to take care of you. Eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep are just a few of the simple steps we can all take to lead better lives.
- Open up to your girlfriends: Be the leader. Encourage other women to discuss the issue, too. The more you talk about it with your friends, the more comfortable you'll feel about seeking help from a medical professional. And nothing is more comforting than knowing you're not alone.
- Talk with your health care provider: Now is not the time to be shy. Explain your symptoms and how they are affecting your life. And just as important, ask your health care provider to explain the options available for treatment, and together you'll develop a plan that's right for you.
And remember this:
We can't control getting older . . . but . . . we can control how we do it.
For more tips on living your best life after 50 (or 60, or 70...) check out www.bestofeverythingafter50.com. Keep me posted on how you're doing by subscribing to me on Facebook and "tweeting" me on Twitter at @BGrufferman. Check out my web video series-The Best of Everything with Barbara Hannah Grufferman-on the AARP YouTube Channel!