07 Oct Researchers State Lengthening a Woman’s Fertility May Extend Life
One organ in a woman’s body ages more than twice as fast as all other tissues, wreaking havoc with both fertility and long-term health.
“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,” stated Jennifer Garrison, an assistant professor at California’s Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the world’s first biomedical research institution devoted exclusively to the science of 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,” Garrison further stated.
“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.”
The Consequences of Aged Ovaries Extend Beyond Fertility
Did you know the age of menopause is tied to longevity? The average age of natural menopause in the United States is 51, according to the North American Menopause Society.
“When the ovaries stop working due to menopause, they stop making a cocktail of hormones important for general health,” Garrison stated. “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.”
“Studies show women who have later menopause tend to live longer and have an enhanced ability to repair their DNA,” Garrison further stated. “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.”
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 noted. “And at the same time, we could delay the onset of these age-related diseases and hopefully extend life.”
By the time a female fetus reaches 20 weeks gestation, there are between 6 million and 7 million oocytes in those tiny, developing ovaries. You came from one of those — which means that when your grandmother was about five months pregnant, you were a spec of a possibility inside her womb.
“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,” stated reproductive researcher Francesca Duncan, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
While extending fertility will be one outcome of the research in the field, scientists aren’t trying to help people get pregnant naturally in their 50s, 60s and 70s, mentioned Dr. Kara Goldman, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“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 stated.
With the help of investors, Garrison has launched the Global Consortium for Reproductive Longevity and Equality. The center is funding research to accelerate the pace of discovery on the underlying causes of accelerated aging in the ovaries.
Since science knows so little about the female reproductive cycle, research is forced to start with the basics, Garrison stated. “What’s the fundamental cause of this decline in egg quality and quantity with age? We don’t know the answer to that,” she noted. “The age of natural menopause is really variable at the individual level, and we don’t know why.”
If basic questions about the ovaries could be answered, “we would have this thing cracked,” Garrison stated. “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.”
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