Readers LOVED and HATED my last blog post: The estrogen theory ends here! Debunking the biggest myth surrounding perimenopause and menopause.
Some attacked my work with an argument I’ve heard too many times before:
“You’re wrong! The reason our bodies malfunction during perimenopause and menopause is because we were never supposed to live this long!”
The idea that women, by design, aren’t supposed to live beyond the age of 40, is the second biggest myth surrounding perimenopause and menopause.
And now it’s time to debunk this myth, too!
As long as we hold on to myths surrounding perimenopause and menopause, we're preventing ourselves from truly understanding what creates and what heals the symptoms that so many women experience at midlife.
Luckily, it’s even easier to debunk the “women were never supposed to live this long” myth, because the evidence against it is so straight forward, which is why when I hear some doctors using this argument before they go on to promote HRT, I can’t help but wonder: if they can’t even get this right, what else aren’t they getting right about our health?
At the heart of this myth lies the concept that it’s only thanks to modern medicine that women even get to menopause.
Charts such as the one below, which depict average life expectancy from birth in England over several centuries, supposedly support this claim.
Before we debunk this myth, it’s important to note that while men (and more recently women) have spent decades spreading the idea that women weren’t supposed to live beyond midlife, men never use this argument to explain some things about themselves, even though these charts represent the average life expectancy of men AND women, and even though in every country in every year for which reliable birth and death records exist, women outlive men!
DEBUNKING THE MYTH STEP 1: Understanding life-expectancy charts
From a quick glance at the above chart, we could easily conclude that left to our natural state (before the impact of modern medicine) we would all be dropping off under the age of 40.
But this chart depicts the AVERAGE life expectancy from birth, which was historically low because infant and child mortality rates used to be horrifically high.
Research into child mortality over the ages suggests that in the 16th century, approximately 25% of children would die within their first year and approximately 50% would die before the age of 16. However, even back then, if a woman lived until adulthood, she was expected to live until her 60s or even 70s – beyond menopause!
Given these figures, it’s entirely possible that a 16th century women could have given birth to two children, one who died at the age of one, while the other lived until the age of 70. In this case, the average life-span of the woman’s children would be 35.5.
The potential to live beyond menopause is not a modern phenomenon. It’s just that once infant and child mortality rates could be lowered (through improved sanitation and nutrition, more educated female populations, fewer teenage pregnancies, increased awareness of child safety, the outlawing of child labor and the impact of modern medicine), the potential to live beyond our reproductive years became more apparent on charts such as the one above.
The pattern of high infant and child mortality rates bringing down the average life expectancy from birth can be seen among contemporary hunter gatherer societies that do not have access to modern sanitation and medicine. However, even among people who survive childhood in these societies “the effective end of human life course under traditional conditions seems to be just after age 70 years.”
DEBUNKING THE MYTH STEP 2: Remembering notable women from history
In this average life expectancy chart, each colored dot represents the life-span of a woman who outlived (by far!) the average life expectancy for the year of her birth. It’s important to note that all of the women who I’ve included, achieved a level of fame to allow them to be mentioned in history books, and yet none of the women was written about as a freak of nature for living so long!!!
Since the chart details life expectancy in England, all the women written about here lived in England, yet examples of women living decades beyond menopause can be found in the histories of other cultures, too.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
Queen of England.
Lived till 69.
Average life expectancy at time of her birth: approximately 38.
During the life-time of Elizabeth I, the average life expectancy of aristocracy (represented by the grey line on the chart) did not necessarily exceed that of the general population.
Queen Elizabeth I reigned for 44 years. She didn’t have any children, which increased her chances of long life since at the time, pregnant women had a 2% chance of dying in childbirth.
Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676)
Noblewoman, patron of literature and restorer of castles.
Lived till 86.
Average life expectancy at time of her birth: approximately 37.5.
Mother of five children, three of them died before adulthood.
Lady Anne’s two brothers died before the age of five, meaning that the average life-span of her and her siblings was 31 (a reminder of how average life expectancy from birth was so low through the ages).
As the only surviving child of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland and Lady Margaret Russell, she was expected to inherit her father’s estates when he died in 1605. Instead her father left his estates to his brother, Francis, and to Francis’s heirs. This act breached an entail dating back to the 14th century, under which his property should have automatically passed to the eldest heir, whether male or female – which was Anne.
Anne engaged in a 40-year battle for her right to inherit her father’s estates (how lucky for her that she didn’t drop off before the age of 40!). Once Anne succeeded to secure her inheritance, she devoted her life to restoring and enhancing the castles and churches on her lands.
Members of the 18th-century Blue Stockings Society
Members included two of the founders Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800) and Elizabeth Vesey (1715–91), in addition to Hester Chapone (1727–1801) Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806), Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741–1821), Hannah More (1745–1833) and Frances Burney (1752–1840).
Average life span of the above members: 82
Average life expectancy from birth in the first half of the 18th century: approximately 39
The Blue Stockings Society was a London-based women's literary circle that promoted education and mutual co-operation, in contrast to the non-intellectual pastimes deemed suitable for women of the time. Many of the society’s members would go on to become published authors in their own right. The women involved in this group generally had more education and fewer children than most English women of the time. Coupled with their unrelenting passion for literature, this appeared to be exceptionally good for their health!
Clementia Taylor (1810 –1908)
Women's rights activist and leader in the English anti-slavery movement.
Lived till 97.
Average life expectancy at time of her birth: approximately 50 (for a woman of her social class).
Clementia founded the Aubrey Institute in West London with her husband Peter Alfred Taylor. The institute served to provide a high standard of education to underprivileged children. Clementia also established the Pen and Pencil Club to promote the work of young writers, and hosted the Committee of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage.
A common theme running through the life of each woman mentioned above was her passion and purpose, which as research concurs has a remarkably positive impact on our health and increases our chances of living a long life!
DEBUNKING THE MYTH STEP 3: Finding menopausal and post-menopausal women in historical and ancient texts
If women didn’t use to survive beyond menopause, menopausal women wouldn’t be mentioned in historical and ancient texts. And yet, even given the fact that women have so often been written out of history, we can find references to menopausal and post-menopausal women in texts from the last two millennia and beyond.
I’ve written about Hildegard of Bingen before in this blog and she’s certainly worthy of another mention. Hildegard was a 12th century German Benedictine abbess, mystic and healer, who lived till the age of 81.
Hildegard wrote about natural history and herbal medicine, giving particular attention to the stages of a woman's life cycle. On menopause she wrote: "The menses cease in women from the fiftieth year and sometimes in certain ones from the sixtieth when the uterus begins to be enfolded and to contract, so that they are no longer able to conceive.”
How would Hildegard have acquired this knowledge if 12th century women didn't live beyond menopause?
Galen of Pergamum, was a 2nd century physician who lived till around 80 years old. Galen’s work, which remained central to Western medicine until the 18th century, reveals his belief that when women's periods stopped, they became less feminine and more "manly-hearted."
Why would Galen write about menopausal women if they didn't exist in the 2nd century?
And now for my favorite historical reference:
Meet Sarah, a matriarch in the Hebrew Bible and wife of Abraham. Sarah appears in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, a text believed to be written over 2,500 years ago!
Whether you happen to believe Sarah existed or not is irrelevant in this case since the text itself is written in and describes ancient times. In Genesis, Chapter 18, when Sarah is told that she will give birth to a baby, it is written:
“Now Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years; Sarah had ceased to have the way of the women.” i.e she was post-menopausal.
And then it is written:
“And Sarah laughed to herself,” [at the thought of having a child at her age – post menopause].
Not only does the text reveal a post-menopausal woman in ancient times (and again nothing in the text points to Sarah being unusual in terms of her age among women of the time), but the text reveals a post-menopausal woman with an intimate understanding of what one could expect from a woman at her stage in life – that she couldn’t give birth!
The writers of Genesis have an understanding of menopause, and so it is that the reader is also expected to understand what happens to women post-menopause.
If post-menopausal women didn't walk the earth over two millennia ago, Sarah’s story wouldn't be in Genesis!
With such a broad range of evidence freely available to debunk the “women were never supposed to live this long” myth, one may ask, why does this myth remain popular?
The answer can be found in the "need" to sell women pills, patches and potions for their perimenopause and menopause symptoms – it helps to have a simple (albeit faulty) argument to convince women why they are broken and need fixing.
Once, not too long ago, all of women’s ills could be linked back to the idea that women malfunction because they are the inferior sex. Doctors would feel comfortable expressing this idea freely as it shaped medical practice and all areas of life. Today, at least in nations where women’s rights are more protected, doctors and experts can’t speak like that anymore. And so a myth, that women were never supposed to live beyond midlife, has stepped in to help make understanding women’s symptoms simple.
By blaming female biology for perimenopause and menopause symptoms, we discount the possibility that perhaps societies and our personal lives are created and managed in ways that do not support women’s lifecycles. Changing life-styles through examining stress, food, the environment and societal structures, are not “things” that can be packaged and sold to millions of women as a “quick-fix.”
But holding on to myths to explain why women experience perimenopause and menopause symptoms does not best serve women.
So please, the next time someone uses the “women were never supposed to live this long” myth to explain anything about menopause, remember you have a response!
Share this post and LAUGH OUT LOUD!
Laugh for all the women who lived as post-menopausal wiser women!
Don’t let anyone take that history away from us!