Lengthening A Woman’s Fertility May Also Extend Her Life, Research Has Found

There is an organ in the female body that ages two times as fast as all other tissues, which results in fertility and longevity issues. 

During a Life Itself event, Jennifer Garrison, an assistant professor at the California Buck Institute for Research on Aging, said of the issue:

“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.”

“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.”

“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 continued.

As a woman’s ovaries age, a number of complications arise. 

“When the ovaries stop working due to menopause, they stop making a cocktail of hormones important for general health,” Garrison told CNN. “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.”

Furthermore, the menopause age is also tightly connected to the female lifespan. The usual age of natural menopause in the is US is 51, as per the North American Menopause Society.

“Studies show women who have later menopause tend to live longer and have an enhanced ability to repair their DNA,” the professor 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.”

But what if there was a scientific solution to this problem? 

“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.”

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By the time a female fetus gets to 20 weeks gestation, her underdeveloped ovaries contain from 6 to 7 million oocytes. This means that when when your grandmother was around five months into her pregnancy, you were just a tiny spec of a possibility inside her womb.

Reproductive researcher and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine Francesca Duncan, said:

“This is why there’s multigenerational impacts for any environmental exposures a woman may have when she’s pregnant. Not only does it affect the woman and fetus, but it then extends across generations.”

Also, somewhere around your mother’s birth, her tiny ovaries only contained 1 to 2 million eggs, as per the  American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The catastrophic loss of oocytes happens to many animal species. According to research, this could be a natural step in fetal growth and development.

By the time girls get to the puberty stage, they only have around 300,000 to 400,000 immature eggs left.

Duncan went on to say:

“The ovary is probably the only organ who loses its function prior to its first use,.”

As we age, the decline escalates, and for most women, only 12% of their eggs will still be intact by 30 years of age, and only around 3% at 40, as per a January 2010 analytic study.

What causes age acceleration?

Why do women end up with barely functional ovaries by the time they reach 30? The answer to this question has not been answered, and Garrison said that, “learning about how little we know about why that happens infuriated me actually.”

One of the reasons may be a lack of funding for such research. Garrison also believes that general research largely ignored females:

“Females were considered to be confounds (confusion) in the data — their cycles are noisy and mess up the data.”

But fortunately, in this day and age, things have changed for the better.

Now scientists are trying to help women get naturally pregnant in their 50s all the way up to their 70s, according to Dr. Kara Goldman, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“We’re thinking about the bigger picture: The best way to prevent the health impact of menopause is to prolong the ovaries’ natural functioning,” she said.

Questions of such importance need answers.

Thanks to investors, Garrison has established the Center for Reproductive Longevity and Equality, which finances research to put the discovery on the underlying causes of accelerated aging in the ovaries on a fast track.

Garrison went on to say:

“What’s the fundamental cause of this decline in egg quality and quantity with age? We don’t know the answer to that.”

“The age of natural menopause is really variable at the individual level, and we don’t know why,” she said.

The truth is, we are far from understanding why exactly women go through menopause, and there are only four other mammals whose bodies operate in such a way. Those are orcas, pilot whales, narwhals, and beluga whales.

“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 continued. “There’s a genetic component there that’s clearly very important, and we don’t understand it at all.”

“It’s not a moon shot — a moon shot would be to get rid of menopause altogether,” she added. “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.”

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