Weight changes, irritability, blurred vision and suicide are just some of the varied health problems traditionally attributed to menopause.

But new research suggests that these and most other symptoms commonly blamed on the female "change of life" are actually the result of other physical ailments or of the numerous lifestyle changes that often occur in middle age.

"The change of life is most of all a social category," says Norwegian psychologist Arne Holte, who will present results of a study of 2,400 Oslo women, ages 45 to 55, at the fourth annual meeting of the International Menopause Society in Orlando, Fla., on Monday. Many of the symptoms long associated with menopause, he says, "seem quite unrelated to biological development."

Holte, 38, and his colleagues at the University of Oslo's Institute of Behavioral Sciences in Medicine are thought to be the first to map change of life symptoms in a normal population. This study, which began in 1981, is part of a five-year project designed to investigate the psychological, social, hormonal and gynecological changes of menopause.

Initial findings show that just three symptoms -- hot flashes, sweating and vaginal dryness -- are related directly to the biological changes of menopause and the years preceding it -- a period of life known medically as the climacteric years, from the Greek word to ascend a ladder. Only 25 percent of the women in the study said they were "troubled often by these symptoms," which were most frequently reported during two distinct time periods -- three to 12 months and two to five years after menopause.

Other complaints often associated with this mid-life, biological change were "not widely distributed in the normal population of women between 45 and 55 years of age," Holte said. These symptoms included everything from sleep disorders and crying spells to depression and the appearance of facial hair.

"Women at about the age of 50 have quite a different conception of the change of life than what the medical conception is," Holte asserts. The medical definition of menopause: reduced production of the hormone estrogen and increased levels of other types of sex hormones known as gonadotropins. Menstrual periods cease and a woman can no longer conceive.

However the women studied typically gauged their progression through menopause not by changes in menstrual cycles but by how many symptoms they felt they experienced.

Many symptoms linked to menopause coincide with other significant -- and often jarring -- mid-life changes, Holte says, such as children leaving home, rebalancing marriages, the death of parents, becoming a grandmother and coping with a husband's illness.

"The important point is that many of these symptoms are not at all related to the change of life," he says. "The problems that people get at mid-life are like problems that you get at other times in your life."

One of the best predictors of what symptoms women will report during their climacteric years is their symptoms during their menstrual cycles, he said. If a woman reported neck aches, backache and headaches during menopause, the study found that she had experienced those same symptoms plus the feeling of nausea during her menstrual cycles. Women who had urinary problems in later years generally had experienced "either little bleeding or extremely excessive bleeding that were unrelated to methods of birth control" during their menstrual cycles. Similarly, women who complained of mood swings in climacteric years also reported feeling depressed or nervous during menstrual cycles.

"Women at mid-life don't seem to be particularly any worse off than any other groups in society," Holte says. But the tendency to label a multitude of unrelated symptoms as part of menopause, makes these women "very easy victims to strong social definition processes."

Misconceptions about menopause make it easy for women to fall prey to the misuse of hormonal replacement therapy such as estrogen, says Holte who likened the treatment to "shooting sparrows with cannons."

In the United States, an estimated 25 to 30 percent of menopausal females take estrogen, says Dr. Morris Notelovitz, director of the University of Florida's Center for Climacteric Studies.

Estrogen therapy can be an important treatment for women experiencing excessive hot flashes, bouts of sweating or vaginal dryness, Notelovitz says. A recent National Institutes of Health conference also found that estrogen can be "highly effective" in halting the excessive bone loss that leads to osteoporosis. But research also shows that estrogen increases the risk of developing cancer.

"If you pick your patients carefully," says Dr. Mortimer Lipsett, an endocrinologist who heads the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, cancer is "a small risk."

"But if you're talking about giving estrogen to keep a menopausal woman from feeling tired or having a headache," Lipsett says, "I would agree it is improper ."

Asserts Norway's Holte: "There is a huge deception that lies in treating these problems with hormone replacement therapy when clearly several of them are rooted in psychological and social conditions." women to fall prey to the misuse of hormonal replacement therapy such as estrogen, says Holte who likened the treatment to "shooting sparrows with cannons."

In the United States, an estimated 25 to 30 percent of menopausal females take estrogen, says Dr. Morris Notelovitz, director of the University of Florida's Center for Climacteric Studies.

Estrogen therapy can be an important treatment for women experiencing excessive hot flashes, bouts of sweating or vaginal dryness, Notelovitz says. A recent National Institutes of Health conference also found that estrogen can be "highly effective" in halting the excessive bone loss that leads to osteoporosis. But research also shows that estrogen increases the risk of developing cancer.

"If you pick your patients carefully," says Dr. Mortimer Lipsett, an endocrinologist who heads the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, cancer is "a small risk."

"But if you're talking about giving estrogen to keep a menopausal woman from feeling tired or having a headache," Lipsett says, "I would agree [it is improper]."

Asserts Norway's Holte: "There is a huge deception that lies in treating these problems with hormone replacement therapy when clearly several of them are rooted in psychological and social conditions."