Slowing down ovarian ageing may help women live longer - here’s what scientists know so far

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  • Researchers still have a long way to go when it comes to fully understanding the female reproductive cycle.
  • It could have significant benefits if they could determine a way to prolong fertility and the onset of menopause.
  • Current research shows the age of menopause is linked to how long a woman lives.

A woman’s body goes through an incredible amount of development and changes during her life. For decades, numerous studies have shed light on the many functions of women’s reproductive system - and one organ, in particular, has scientists’ interest.

"Ovaries are very strange, very odd in terms of the rest of the human body,” Jennifer Garrison, an assistant professor at California's Buck Institute for Research on Aging, told CNN.

This organ ages much faster than all other tissues and can interfere with both fertility and long-term health.

Garrison said they can be thought of as an “accelerated model for human ageing.” Speaking to the audience at Life Itself, a health and wellness event presented this year in partnership with CNN, she said:

"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 ageing.”

Ageing ovaries

At birth, a woman’s ovaries contain six million eggs. By puberty, that number decreases to a few hundred thousand, as explained by WebMD.

As you age, the quality and quantity of your eggs drop further, causing your fertility to decline. After age 35, a woman’s fertility declines more rapidly until menopause, where your ovaries stop producing eggs, indicating the end of your fertility and periods.

But the age-related changes that occur in the ovaries extend beyond fertility, said Garrison, drawing attention to menopause.

Said Garrison: "When the ovaries stop working due to menopause, they stop making a cocktail of hormones important for general health.

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“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."

In a 2019 study, the authors wrote the “rapid deterioration in both the ovarian follicle quality and quantity is highly associated with a number of women’ disorders or diseases.”

That’s not all: the age of menopause has also been linked to how long a woman lives, known as “longevity.” The average age for menopause is 51, according to Harvard Health

Delaying onset of diseases

This study concluded “later menopause was associated with longer overall survival” while another found women with later menopause were more likely to reach age 90 compared to those whose reproductive milestones came at earlier ages, Reuters reported.

These studies all show women who have menopause later have an enhanced ability to repair their DNA, said Garrison. 

So, what if scientists were able to learn how to slow the process of ageing ovaries? "It would be a game changer, right?” said Garrison. 

Not only will women have options when it comes to their reproductive choices, but it would also mean the onset of worrying age-related diseases could be delayed - and life could potentially be extended.

It’s an important question, and certainly not the first time it has been asked.

READ MORE | 'Do not wait' - A reproductive medicine specialist on timelines, treatment options and costs

The authors of the 2019 study also wrote: “Ovarian ageing, a special type of organ senescence, is the earliest-ageing organ … [it] drives the ageing of multiple organs of the body. Hence, anti-ovarian ageing has become a research topic broadly interesting to both biomedical scientists and pharmaceutical industry.”

Ovarian ageing is a complex process, they said, adding careful studies of the female reproductive system, especially the mechanisms of ovarian ageing and effective strategies to delay it, are of great importance.

In fact, there are anti-ovarian ageing therapies that are being studied. Because of this, the authors believe once future effective therapies have been established, “it will no longer be a fantasy to extend women's reproductive life and delay menopause”.

Reaction from women

Unfortunately, science knows very little about the female reproductive cycle, said Garrison, so research is forced to start with the basics.

"What's the fundamental cause of this decline in egg quality and quantity with age? We don't know the answer to that," she said. "Why does a woman's reproductive span correlate with her overall life span?

If researchers could answer these basic questions, "we would have this thing cracked," Garrison said.

Interestingly, not all women are in support of this. One follower on CNN’s Facebook page commented: “Leave the female body alone... Who wants to be menstruating all their [lives]?” 

READ MORE | Gwyneth Paltrow enlists expert help as she prepares for menopause

But others were in favour: “As long as it’s up to the woman, and not someone else, to decide for herself and her body, then I’m totally cool with it,” said one follower.

Another said: I’d like to have the chance to be pregnant a bit later on, because I’m in my late 30’s and still not ready for kids yet. I’m afraid it might be too late whenever I’m actually ready for them.”

However, Dr Kara Goldman, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, told CNN that while extending fertility would be an outcome of the research, scientists aren't advocating for women to get pregnant naturally in their 50s, 60s and 70s. 

"That would be a completely irresponsible goal and ultimately a short-sighted 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," she said.

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