Your body goes into menopause when your ovaries stop producing estrogen, the hormone that controls your reproductive cycle. Anything that damages your ovaries can put you into premature menopause, including chemotherapy treatment for cancer, or surgery to remove your ovaries. In these cases, early menopause is a side effect your doctor will prepare you for. But some women unexpectedly go into menopause early, even if their ovaries are still intact.
Early Menopause and Your Genes
When there’s no obvious medical reason for early menopause, often the cause lies in your genes. Anna Murray, PhD, a senior lecturer in Human Genetics at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter, has studied the connection between genes and age at menopause. “We think that approximately half of the variability in the age of menopause is determined by our genes,” she explained.
Referring to your mother’s menopause can provide important clues as to when you’ll start your own transition. If your mother started menopause early, then you are six times more likely to do the same, Murray says. Yet genes tell only half the story.
Smoking can contribute to early menopause, due to its anti-estrogen effects. “If you’re a regular or long-term smoker, usually the age of menopause will be one to three years earlier compared to women who don’t smoke,” explains Chunyan He, ScD, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Body mass index (BMI) is another possible factor in early menopause. Estrogen is stored in fat tissue. Very thin women have less estrogen stores, which can be depleted sooner, says He.
Can early menopause contribute to other conditions?
When you start menopause 10 or more years early, the most obvious concern is the end of your fertility. Yet there are other health worries too. “The age at menopause is associated with several chronic diseases,” says He. In addition to its role in reproduction, the steady stream of estrogen to your tissues while you’re still getting a period protects you against conditions like heart disease and osteoporosis.
Estrogen increases “good” HDL cholesterol while decreasing “bad” LDL cholesterol, and it relaxes blood vessels. The hormone also shields bones, preventing them from thinning. Losing estrogen earlier than normal can put you at increased risk for heart problems and bone loss—something you need to discuss with your doctor when considering your treatment options.
Can early menopause protect me from other conditions?
On the plus side, starting menopause early might actually protect you against other diseases, particularly estrogen-sensitive cancers such as breast cancer. Women who enter menopause late (after age 55) are at greater risk for breast cancer than those who enter the transition earlier in life, because their breast tissue is exposed to estrogen for many more years.
Easing the Transition to Menopause
One day there may be a genetic test to determine whether you’ll start menopause early, but for now only time will tell for sure when you’ll start your transition. Seeing your ob/gyn for regular check-ups and being proactive about your reproductive health can make menopause less of a frightening unknown and more of a positive step forward to the next stage in your life.