Testing for early menopauses in women moves a step closer
The possibility of testing women for the risk of early menopause has moved a step closer with scientists identifying genetic changes that can speed its arrival.
By Aislinn Simpson
Scientists hope the discovery may lead to better infertility treatments and help women plan when to have children better. It could also help control the risk of osteoporosis and heart disease, both of which are associated with the menopause.
The discovery was made by researchers in the Netherlands who analysed genetic data from nine studies involving 10,339 menopausal women.
They found 20 changes in the genetic code that were associated with having an early menopause, possibly through influencing the ovaries or the brain.
The findings, from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, were presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Genetics in Vienna.
Researcher Lisette Stolk said: "We found that the 20 were all related to a slightly earlier menopause, and women who had one of them experienced menopause nearly a year earlier than others.
"We know that 10 years before menopause women are much less fertile, and five years before many are infertile. In Western countries, where women tend to have children later in life and closer to menopause, age at menopause can be an important factor in whether or not a particular woman is able to become a mother."
The menopause occurs when a woman's stock of eggs, which number one or two million at birth, falls to the point where reproduction is no longer possible.
Its timing varies considerably among white women, ranging between 40 and 60 years of age, but the average age is around 50.
As well as causing infertility, the menopause is associated with an increased risk of the brittle bone disease osteoporosis and heart disease.
Previous studies of twins have suggested that inherited genetic factors are important in deciding when a woman will go through the menopause, but the Dutch study represents the first time the genetic markers have been identified.
The Dutch scientists now plan to use the same analysis technique, known as a genome-wide association study (GWAS), on an even larger sample of women.
"If these studies give us a better understanding of the function of the genetic variants involved in early menopause, we might one day be able to screen women who have problems getting pregnant to see if they have one or more of these variants which might relate to their sub-fertility, and perhaps interfere with the relevant physiological pathways in order to delay their total infertility," Miss Stolk said.