Research Suggests That Lengthening a Woman’s Fertility May Extend Her Life, Too

Research Suggests That Lengthening a Woman’s Fertility May Extend Her Life, Too

"There's a genetic component there that's clearly very important, and we don't understand it at all."

"Ovaries are very strange, very odd in terms of the rest of the human body. We can think about them like an accelerated model for human aging," said Jennifer Garrison, an assistant professor at California's Buck Institute for Research on Aging, according to CNN

"When a woman is in her late 20s or early 30s, the rest of her tissue is functioning at peak performance, but her ovaries are already showing overt signs of aging," Garrison told an audience at Life Itself, a health and wellness event. 

"Yet most women learn about their ovaries and ovarian function when they go to use them for the first time and find out they're geriatric," she added.

Aged ovaries have effects that go beyond fertility, particularly during menopause, the time when a person's menstrual cycle stops. "When the ovaries stop working due to menopause, they stop making a cocktail of hormones important for general health," Garrison said. "Even in healthy women, it dramatically increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, cognitive decline, insomnia, osteoporosis, weight gain, arthritis -- those are medically established facts."



Along with that, it has been established that the age of menopause is directly tied to longevity, and according to the North American Menopause Society, the average age for natural menopause in the US is 51 years.

"Studies show women who have later menopause tend to live longer and have an enhanced ability to repair their DNA," Garrison said. "But women with natural menopause before the age of 40 are twice as likely to die (early) compared with women going through natural menopause between the ages 50 to 54."

So, would there be a benefit if there was some science to slow the rate of aging in ovaries?

"It would be a game changer, right? Women would have parity and options in their reproductive choices and be empowered with control over their lives," Garrison said. "And at the same time, we could delay the onset of these age-related diseases and hopefully extend life."



However, the reason why senile ovaries occur around the age of 30 is something science doesn't know, Garrison said, "and learning about how little we know about why that happens infuriated me actually."

One reason for this is the significant lack of historical research, Garrison added. "Females were considered to be confounds (confusion) in the data -- their cycles are noisy and mess up the data."

Thankfully, that has slowly been changing. 

Scientists are not attempting to assist people in becoming naturally pregnant in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, although extending fertility will be one result of the field's research, Dr. Kara Goldman, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, said. 

"That would be a completely irresponsible goal and ultimately a shortsighted one. We're thinking about the bigger picture: The best way to prevent the health impact of menopause is to prolong the ovaries' natural functioning," Goldman said.



Meanwhile, Garrison has launched the Global Consortium for Reproductive Longevity and Equality with the help of investors. The center is sponsoring research to quicken the speed of understanding the fundamental factors that contribute to the ovaries' accelerated aging.

Since very little is known about the female reproductive cycle, research is forced to start with the basics, Garrison said.

"What's the fundamental cause of this decline in egg quality and quantity with age? We don't know the answer to that," she said. "The age of natural menopause is really variable at the individual level, and we don't know why."

Also, it is still a mystery as to why humans even go through menopause in the first place, because only four other mammals -- killer whales (orcas), short-finned pilot whales, beluga whales, and narwhals have a similar cycle. 

"Why does a woman's reproductive span correlate with her overall life span? Even brothers of women who go through menopause later tend to live longer," Garrison added. "There's a genetic component there that's clearly very important, and we don't understand it at all."



If basic questions about the ovaries could be answered, "we would have this thing cracked," Garrison said.

"It's not a moon shot -- a moon shot would be to get rid of menopause altogether," she said. "But understanding what causes it and figuring out interventions that would extend it a little bit by one year, two years, five years, 10 years -- that is very achievable."




Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images | magicmine

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