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Objective To describe the health symptoms of a large representative sample of British women at age 47 years, and to examine the influence of the menopause allowing for social factors and health in earlier adult life.

Design A national prospective birth cohort study. Information on health problems, menstrual cycle, use of hormone replacement therapy and life stress at 47 years was collected using a postal questionnaire. Information on health, smoking behaviour and educational attainment earlier in life had been collected at previous home visits.

Setting England, Scotland and Wales.

Population A general population sample of 1498 women, 84% of those sent a questionnaire.

Main outcome measure Twenty self-reported health symptoms over the previous 12 months.

Results Women who had experienced an early natural menopause had a strongly raised risk of vasomotor symptoms (hot flushes or night sweats), sexual difficulties (vaginal dryness or difficulties with intercourse) and trouble sleeping. However, there was little or no excess risk of other somatic or psychological symptoms. In contrast, all types of symptoms were more common among women who had had a hysterectomy or were users of hormone replacement therapy. Women with the least education, stressful lives, or a previous history of poor physical and psychological health at age 36 also reported more symptoms at 47 years compared with other women, but adjustment for these factors in a logistic regression model did not affect the relations between symptoms and current menopausal status. For vasomotor symptoms, postmenopausal women had an adjusted odds ratio of 4.7 (95% CI 2.6–8.5) and perimenopausal women had an adjusted odds ratio of 2.6 (95% CI 1.9–3.5) compared with premenopausal women. Corresponding adjusted odds ratios for sexual difficulties were 3.9 (95% CI 2.1–7.1) and 2.2 (95% CI 1.4–3.2), and for trouble sleeping were 3.4 (95% CI 1.9–6.2) and 1.5 (95% CI 1.1–2.0).

Conclusions Specific symptoms were clearly associated with the natural menopause. More general health concerns were common among women in middle life, particularly among those with stressful lives, or those who had had a hysterectomy or started taking hormone replacement therapy before they were postmenopausal. Appropriate advice and support needs to be easily accessible.