The discussion about menopause is dominated by hot flashes and mood changes. Yet alongside these well-known symptoms, strength and muscle mass also tend to decrease and bones become more fragile.

Academy Research Fellow Eija Laakkonen from the JYU Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences thinks the menopause discussion too often focuses solely on negative mood-related issues. Menopause is about a larger issue.

“Every woman experiences menopause in her own way,” Laakkonen explains. “Many women are not stressed by it at all, and consider themselves happy adult females.”

Laakkonen would like to shift the focus of discussion from mood changes to bodily changes. Menopause typically decreases bone density as a result of declined estrogen production. In addition, decreased strength and muscle mass limit women’s functional capacity. However, these can be affected by training.

“We need good muscular capacity for daily chores and the foundation for functional capacity in older age is built already during middle age,” Laakkonen says.

She continues: “Training muscular fitness is particularly important for women at menopause so as to maintain their muscular capacity. The main point is to engage in physical activity that one finds enjoyable, but I also recommend including in these activities also some training that helps maintain the muscular mass. Exercising by using one’s own body weight is quite all right.”

The composition of the human body is known to change, but its metabolism is less well known. There is also surprisingly little research into the connections between nutrition and menopause. Specifically, are eating behaviour and the control mechanism for feeling full altered at menopause?

High-quality research into the effects of menopause

It is essential to find out why muscles and bones are weakening in general. The ERMA project, launched in 2014 at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, has studied female menopause from various perspectives. The ERMA study involved about a thousand women from Central Finland between the ages of 47 and 55. Their strength, bone density, body composition, blood test results, and physical activity were measured. Women in transitional menopause are currently being followed up at about six-month intervals, until they can be stated to have passed their menopause. This first follow-up study will end at the end of 2018.

The new grant Laakkonen received from the Academy of Finland enables further studies. The EsmiRs project, which started at the end of 2017,  investigates the biological mechanisms underlying the negative health effects related to menopause. This study examines menopause at the genetic and cellular level as well as from a mental wellbeing perspective. The subjects come from the sample involved in the ERMA study. They are invited to follow-up measurements over a four-year period.

“Now we are studying things such as the metabolic mechanisms that cause loss of strength and muscle mass,” Laakkonen says. The subjects will undergo some of the same tests as in ERMA, but there are also glucose tolerance tests, bicycle ergometer and metabolic tests at rest as well as a measurement of vascular condition.

The ERMA data are also used in the PATHWAY project funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture. PATHWAY investigates how personality affects the experience of menopause and physical activity.

“Menopause is known to affect women’s health. Why and how are still largely open questions,” Academy Research Fellow Laakkonen states.