Climacteric or "critical period" is an old word for referring to the time around the menopause. Nowadays many people tend to think of it as meaning the same as perimenopause. But it seems a shame to lose the old word because there is so much more to women's midlife than the biology of haywire periods and the end of fertility, that the term perimenopause describes.
And this is not just about women ... not so long ago, climacteric was seen as a man's problem...
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Critical life stages
"I should observe, that though this climacteric disease is sometimes equally remarkable in women as in men, yet most certainly I have not noticed it so frequently, nor so well characterized in females."
Henry Halford, "On Climacteric Diseases", 1813. Quoted in Lock M. Encounters with Aging, University of California Press; Berkeley 1993.
The word climacteric comes from the Greek word klimacter meaning critical period and has been used for centuries to refer to periods of change during life – and that means the lives of both women AND men.
It is only in the last hundred years or so that the term has been used to refer to the time around the end of menstruation in women's midlife. The idea that men might also have critical phases in their lives seems to have fallen by the wayside.
There are lots ideas in history and around the world that the human life-span can be divided into key life stages. Perhaps the most well known is Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, from the play "As You Like It". In this view, a man's life (note not a woman's) is divided into: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, aging fool, and second childhood when he loses all his faculties.
A life-span theory that was common in 18th century Europe divided up human life into phases of 7 years, with the idea that passage from one stage to the next involved a transition. The ages of 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56, 63 and 70 marked the life stages and a critical transition or climacteric could occur at any of the transition points.
According to this theory, which covered the whole human life span, there was no distinction between women and men. The grand climacteric was seen as coming at the age of 63 and marked the onset of decline into old age. This onset of decay and loss of strength was viewed as a disease in some medical circles and as the quotation above by Henry Halford suggests, was associated more with men than with women.
Prime of Life
Aristotle regarded the age of 49 – seven times seven as the peak or akme of a man’s life. And this idea that a man reached his peak maturity was also prevalent in Roman Europe:
"The number seven multiplied by itself produces the age which is properly considered and called perfect, so that a man of this age, as one who had already attained not yet passed perfection, is considered ripe in wisdom, and not unfit for the exercise of his physical powers".
Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. Transl W.H. Stahl. Columbia University Press, New York 1952Quoted in Lock M. Encounters with Aging, University of California Press; Berkeley 1993.
But we mustn't forget that these writers were referring to men's middle life.
Women, whose prime purpose was thought to be to reproduce, were seen as flowering earlier and degenerating earlier. And unfortunately, relics of this kind of thinking lurk in the shadows of many people’s minds today.
Life cycles around the world
Theories about critical life stages and life cycles aren't exactly scientific but the idea obviously makes sense to a lot of people because they occur in other cultures as well as European. For instance, anthropologist Donna Lee Davis found that women in a Newfoundland fishing village also divide their lives into seven year cycles (1). And Margaret Lock describes how in Japan the word yakudoshi refers to an idea of calamitous or dangerous years, which rings true with the critical life stages theory (2).
The time of midlife change is also recognised in other cultures, for instance in Margaret Lock's fascinating study of Japanese women, she describes what the Japanese understand as the process of konenki, a term used to refer to a time in midlife that is similar but by no means identical to peri menopause. Click here to read about culture and menopause.
The birth of perimenopause
It was only later in the 19th century, after the word menopause had been coined by Dr de Gardanne, that the word climacteric became associated with women and their "change of life". In day to day language people used to refer to the phase of life before and after the final end of menstruation as the "dodging time".
Not for Victorian doctors
Doctors at the end of the 19th century recognised a "climacteric syndrome" which they described as marking the female midlife crisis and which caused a minority of women to suffer unduly. But there was really not very much medical interest in menopause except from a few interested specialists.
Neurotic, pampered women
Many 19th and early 20th century doctors believed that suffering at midlife was a problem of upper class women because poor women didn't have time to notice, and much less to complain about their ailments. Women were generally encouraged to keep busy, take up new interests and distract themselves because their discomforts would pass and they would soon return to a full and rewarding life.
Gradually during the last few decades, as ideas about the menopause have become more and more dominated by the medical profession, the term perimenopause has entered our vocabulary and replaced the older word. But even if it isn’t regarded as a medical term in itself, it's of note that the journal of the International Menopause Society, founded in 1998, carries the title: Climacteric.
Middle aged puberty
In many people's minds climacteric has the same relation to menopause as puberty has to menarche (the beginning of periods). This middle-age “puberty” is thought of as occurring sometime between the ages of 40 and 60.
Mysterious and mythical
Perhaps the more clinical and biological emphasis of the newer term perimenopause loses some of the subtle meanings of personal transition and transformation that the older word carried with it.
"The climacteric is a mysterious time about which sinister myths continue to cling."
Germaine Greer. The Change. Women, Aging and the Menopause. Hamish Hamilton Ltd. London 1991. (3)
Published March 2010. Updated September 2012