New test will predict if you're at risk of early menopause and if you need to start a family now
ONE of women’s biggest concerns is if they are leaving it too late to start a family.
But a new test could help make those decisions, revealing if a woman is at risk of an early menopause.
Most women go through the menopause between 45 and 55 years old.
But some women face it under the age of 40 – most with no prior warning.
Considering women typically have their first child at 30, an early menoapuse – which could happen as early as the 20s – could spell tragedy for women looking to expand their family.
Scientists said to find out a woman's odds of a premature menopause, all it would require is a piece of DNA, taken from either spit or blood.
It comes after they identified 300 gene variations that influence the time at which a woman goes into the menopause.
For example, women who naturally lack an active Chek2 gene reach menopause on average 3.5 years later than women with a normally active gene.
Many of the genes have never been discovered before.
One of the researchers Dr Anna Murray, an associate professor in human genetics at the University of Exeter, told The Sun: “You could test for the genetic variants that we've discovered in our study.
“We’re thinking about whether we can use this genetic score – so adding up the genetic variants we’ve discovered, nearly 300 of them – to see if we could predict women who will go through menopause very early, which is under 40.
“That's one per cent in the general population, which is actually quite a large number.
“It [the genetic score] only has a limited predictability. But you could say you are at higher risk for early menopause.
“You could tell them their risk is ‘one in 20’, rather than ‘one in 100’.”
The findings, published today in the journal Nature, were based on looking at genetic data gathered from hundreds of thousands of women, some of them in a dataset from 23andMe.
23andMe is one of dozens of DNA tests available to buy online that people can use to discover their risks of certain diseases.
And scientists now believe tests like these can be used to spot women who could go through a premature menopause.
Dr Murray said: “Potentially other companies could use our score or genetic findings, and we are pursuing that ourselves.”
Planning a baby
There are already blood tests to confirm if a woman is "menopausal". But it can't predict it years in advance, only when hormones are already changing.
If a woman knew early – say in her 20s – that she was at risk of an early menopause, and therefore her chances of conceiving could be scuppered, she could take steps to avoid devastation later down the line.
It’s something young women really care about and it's one of their major worries in life, whether they’ll be able to have children
This could mean trying for a baby earlier, freezing eggs, or trying to delay the menopause with other lifestyle factors, like cutting back on drinking.
The current score predictor researchers have is strong but simple, based on genetics.
But it could be made more complex by asking women about their consumption of alcohol, whether they smoke and the age their mum went through “the change” – all factors that drive an early menopause.
Dr Murray said: “Even though we can't say you're likely to have a menopause at X age – and we almost certainly never will be able to – even knowing they are at slightly higher risk, I think is useful to people.
“The benefit I see is for younger women, women in their 20s, who are looking to plan their reproductive life, and their life in general and the choices they make.
“[From surveys], the feedback I'm getting is it’s something young women really care about and it's one of their major worries in life, whether they’ll be able to have children.
“There are some options for freezing eggs or embryos, or just making the decision to start a family earlier than they would have done.”
“Women may think if I’m at high genetic risk, and I'm a drinker and smoker, that might be an incentive to stop smoking and that could improve their overall risk.”
Can you delay the menopause?
Most factors that decide the age of a women's menopause cannot be changed.
But there are some things you can do that are linked with delaying it slightly, according to Dr Philippa Kaye, author of The M Word.
Stop smoking: Women who smoke go through the menopause two years earlier, on average.
Increase intake of oily fish, legumes and vitamin B6 and zinc: Studies show these may affect the timing of your menopause.
Get enough calcium and vitamin C: A diet low in these could lead to an earlier menopause. But it's not clear if increasing intake delays it.
The work could also help prevent diseases that are linked with hormones.
Women who have an earlier menopause are at increased risk of type 2 diabetes and bone fractures, but are at lower risk of some types of cancer, such as ovarian and breast cancer.
The study also used mice to examine how altering genetics could give a woman more reproductive years.
By inactivating some genes, while boosting the expression of others, scientists were able to expand the rodent’s reproductive lifespan by around 25 per cent.
It could be useful to help women going through treatment to have a baby, such as through IVF, by giving more time to extract eggs from their ovaries.
But it’s unlikely this method would ever be used to delay menopause, Dr Murray said, because this could influence a woman's risk of getting disease.
Professor Eva Hoffmann, of the University of Copenhagen, who is also a co-author on the study, added: “There are, of course, a number of scientific questions and safety concerns that have to be addressed before this is attempted in humans.
“But what our studies show is that it is possible that targeted short-term inhibition of these pathways during IVF treatment could help some women respond better.”
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