UMass Amherst Anthropologist Wins $172,000 Grant

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts anthropologist Lynnette Leidy has received a $172,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study variations in age and experience of women at menopause. Leidy will focus on women of different socio-economic groups in Mexico to explore such factors as diet, number of children, and access to medical care which may influence a woman’s experience at menopause.

Leidy’s interest in menopause began 12 years ago when she was a hospital nurse in Kingston, NY. She has since conducted a number of studies, including one last year in which she compared the experiences of women in western Massachusetts with those of women 90 miles away in upstate New York. Leidy found noteworthy differences, such as a much lower hysterectomy rate in Massachusetts. She also found that women in Massachusetts were twice as likely to use hormone replacement therapy, a fact she attributed to differing medical approaches here, as well as to a possible tendency on the part of women in this area to be more proactive about their health.

Last summer, Leidy extended her research to Mexico, where previous studies have already indicated dramatic differences in age at menopause. While the average age of menopause in the U.S is 50, in indigenous Mexican populations it is approximately 43. In addition, those same Mayan populations experience no "hot flashes." In the U.S., approximately 70 percent of perimenopausal women complain of some sort of "hot flash," Leidy says.

Over the next three years, Leidy will continue to study differences in age and experience at menopause by focusing on differences between women in Mexico and western Massachusetts. By highlighting the variability in the experience of menopause – and the cultural, medical, and biological factors which all seem to play a part in its onset – Leidy hopes to demystify the experience. Her ultimate goal is to undercut popular misconceptions which sometimes lead both men and women to "demonize it as the beginning of the end of life."

In addition, Leidy hopes to show that "cookie cutter" approaches to treating menopause are not always effective. For instance, while she supports hormone replacement therapy for many women, she believes there are equally viable alternatives for just as many others. "The pharmaceutical industry and physicians have a dominant role in defining, problemizing, and ‘solving’ menopause for American women," Leidy says. "This current study, combined with my earlier research into the history of American medicine, is proving not only that menopause is variably experienced, but that it has been variably treated at different times in history."

An anthropologist with a strong background in biology, Leidy has been a UMass professor since 1993. She was recently selected to head the newly-developed Five College Certificate Program in Culture, Health, and Science, which allows students to concentrate in medical anthropology through course work, field research, and internships.