Scientists have moved closer to devising a test that could warn women that they are going to undergo an early menopause.
The blood test would identify those who are going to go through the menopause before the age of 35, years before it usually happens in a woman’s early 50s. That process happens to around one in 20 women and can ruin dreams of motherhood.
Scientists report today that they have made considerable progress in understanding the key role played in early menopause by four genes.
The test that their findings help pave the way for could be of particular benefit to the growing number of women who put off having children until their 30s but then find that they cannot conceive.
Researchers from Exeter University’ Peninsula Medical School and the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) examined the four genes linked to early menopause. They compared 2,000 women who had been through it and 2,000 who had not.
While each gene affected a woman’s risk of an early menopause, the combination of them produced a much greater risk, which the researchers to conclude that this is why some women experience the menopause much earlier than normal.
They say that their work could lead to women being able to find out if they are genetically predisposed to early menopause and know when their fertility would end and thus potentially decide to have children earlier than planned.
“It is estimated that a woman’s ability to conceive decreases on average 10 years before she starts the menopause,” said lead scientist Dr Anna Murray, from the Peninsula Medical School. “Therefore those who are destined to have an early menopause and delay childbearing until their 30s are more likely to have problems conceiving. These findings are the first stage in developing an easy and relatively inexpensive genetic test which could help the one in 20 UK women who may be affected by early menopause.”
The study, published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics, is the first research to emerge from the Breakthrough Generations Study. The collaboration between the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer and the ICR plans to track 100,000 women over the next 40 years to identify which lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors make some women susceptible to the commonest female cancer.
Fertility experts said a genetic test based on the new study could give would-be older mothers options they may not otherwise have. “This could help the growing numbers of women who delay having children until towards the end of their reproductive life and then find to their horror that they have gone through, or are approaching, early menopause, and so their egg quality is very poor,” said Dr Allan Pacey of Sheffield University.
“Given that women are increasingly older when they start having their families then a result like this should be able to tell those women at risk that they shouldn’t hang about, even if that’s before they ideally want to have children, because you can’t turn the clock back once an early menopause has happened”.
Pacey added: “If you haven’t found Mr Right by then, then women could freeze their eggs. This could be an early warning call to do that and there would be a legitimate medical reason to do so”.