The ovaries are the proverbial treasure chests of the female anatomy, holding within them thousands of immature eggs with which to have a baby.
As you age, the quality and quantity of eggs declines. Financial reserve is how much money is in the bank; ovarian reserve is how many eggs are in the bank. Ovarian reserve diminishes while estrogen levels and egg quality drop. When the ovaries finally stop producing estrogen, menopause begins. The average age at the onset of menopause is 51, but early menopause occurs before the age of 40.
As menopause hits and eggs are no longer viable, usually from aging, there is no way to reverse it and get them back. In that case, donor eggs may be the only option for those who want to be pregnant.
But what causes early menopause or premature ovarian aging? This unique situation may occur from lifestyle factors, medical treatment or genetic predisposition. Early menopause can also be the result of an autoimmune disease.
Early menopause affects women even in their teen years and dreams of having a family might be shattered if it weren't for fertility treatment options. Whether you are certain that you want to be a mom or aren't sure yet, certainly having a healthy onset of menopause (no one said hot flashes were fun) is important. Therefore, take a serious and careful look at yourself as you go through this list.
1. Everyday Chemical Exposures
Is your makeup safe? A recent study identified 15 chemicals -- nine PCBs, three pesticides, two phthalates and a furan (a toxic chemical) -- that were associated with harming ovarian function and causing menopause two to four years earlier than normal. These chemicals can be found in plastics, personal-care products (makeup, nail polish, lotion, perfume, and hairspray), common household items and the environment. Take a close look at the products you use as you apply your foundation. Be careful what you use to microwave food and consider using a paper plate or glass bowl instead of plastic.
2. Smoking Cigarettes
Still trying to quit smoking some day? The chemicals present in cigarette smoke accelerate egg loss. If you have a smoking habit, every cigarette smoked puts you on the fast track to diminish your egg supply and start menopause early -- one to four years earlier, to be precise. This can really hurt the chance of being able to have a baby with your own eggs.
3. Being Underweight
It's funny that being too thin could cause early menopause, but interesting facts seem to support this idea. The more fat that is present in the body, the higher the estrogen supply. When estrogen supply runs out, menopause begins. If estrogen reserves are already extra low due to an underweight Body Mass Index (under 18.5), menopause may begin sooner as a result. A study found that the greater the BMI, the later the onset of menopause. For optimal health, aim to keep body weight within a normal BMI range (18.6 - 24.9). To learn more, calculate your BMI here. Keep in mind that taking care of yourself with an aggressive yoga schedule and tight diet can be healthy, but not in extreme.
4. Undergoing Cancer Treatment
Many young women and men have suffered the diagnosis of cancer... and beat it. One of their first concerns often is what effect medical therapy might have on their ability to have a child. An emerging technology is oncofertility, the brave step to preserve fertility before such things as chemotherapy and radiation cause damage the ovaries sparking premature menopause. Whether cancer treatment will contribute to early menopause depends upon the type and amount used as well as the age of the patient. To get a better understanding of how your cancer treatment will affect ovarian function, speak with your doctor. Ask about fertility preservation options that exist for you or a loved one with cancer.
5. Autoimmune Disorders
You may have heard of someone in your family having an autoimmune disease. When the body is diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, the body's immune system may not be able to decipher the difference between attacking a harmful disease or attacking the ovaries, altering hormone production. As a result, it is common for patients with autoimmune disorders to have irregular ovulation, or even cease ovulation. Rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease are two examples of autoimmune disorders that may interfere with ovarian production. For women of child-bearing age who wish to have a baby, there are various medical solutions that are possible, depending on the severity and type of autoimmune disorder. Some options include ovulation induction and ovarian stimulation through medication, as well as in vitro fertilization. Being proactive is important both in getting pregnant as well as understanding how to be treated once pregnant.
6. Surgery to Remove Ovaries
The need to remove an ovary due to things like endometriosis or ectopic pregnancy may be necessary at times. Before going into surgery, make sure to discuss your desire for pregnancy if that is the case. Without ovaries, the body's source of estrogen production is no longer available, causing early menopause to immediately result. And, of course, gone are the eggs as well. Women may actually choose to remove their ovaries if they are at risk for ovarian cancer, while others may have to remove ovaries after an ovarian cancer diagnosis. For women without ovaries who wish to have a baby, it may be possible to create embryos via donor egg. Another growing option is embryo donation. If the uterus was not removed, then it is possible to carry a baby. If the uterus was also removed, using a gestational carrier is another possibility. Remember that the science of medicine has provided many alternatives to helping couples become parents.
7. Genetic Factors
When did Mom go through the change of life? If your mom or sister experienced early menopause, research shows that the age of early menopause is inheritable and you will likely undergo early menopause too. It is good to keep this in mind when planning a family. Knowledge is power. Check your eggs! Get a blood test and ultrasound to check your own ovarian reserve. If you are not ready to have a baby today then consider egg freezing. Or, if you have a spouse and you aren't ready today to have children, consider freezing embryos. Lower egg reserve can also mean increased risk of miscarriage and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which involves genetic screening of embryos, may help you with this as well.
You may know someone who has epilepsy since it is unfortunately a common condition. Many studies have found that those with epilepsy may experience premature ovarian failure. In a study of women with epilepsy, approximately 14 per cent experienced premature menopause, as compared with 1 per cent of the population. If you consider this as well as the medicines needed to treat this disease, speaking to a reproductive endocrinologist may be very helpful to assist in family planning of when and how to proceed.
9. Chromosomal Defects
Your DNA is stored in a cell, packaged in "chromosomes." Approximately 23 chromosomes come from the egg and 23 come from the sperm to create 23 unique pairs of a new baby. Some people may be born with abnormal chromosomes causing different conditions. The presence of chromosomal defects can cause premature menopause. As an example, Turner's syndrome causes the ovaries to form abnormally, which then leads to early menopause. This can also be tested if premature menopause is identified as a possible cause.
As women are faced with many challenges like early menopause, consider the above as ways to stay ahead of the curve. Some of this can be avoided. Some is given to us at birth. Meet with doctors to help you if you are suffering from early menopause, and discuss other health strategies that can help maintain health in other ways as well. For example, cardiac and bone health, among other things, can also be improved.
Life is for living. The most important message is to consider what you want out of life...and own it.
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