Insufficient nutrition during fetal development may be linked to early menopause and premature ovarian failure, according to a new large-scale study of Chinese women born during the Great Chinese Famine, between 1956 and 1964.
Although several studies have looked at the association between famine exposure in early life and the risk of various metabolic diseases in adulthood, such as type 2 diabetes, the association with reproductive aging has not been thoroughly studied.
Infants are particularly sensitive to changes in their environment while still in the womb, during their earliest stages of development. Prior research has shown that the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis during the fetal stage plays a critical role in adulthood reproductive health.
For the new study, researchers evaluated nearly 2,900 Chinese women specifically sought to address the effect of early life exposure to famine on age at menopause. All of the study participants had been born during China’s infamous famine occurring between 1956 and 1964.
The findings reveal that prenatal malnutrition is linked to a greater risk of early menopause (age younger than 45 years), as well as a higher risk of premature ovarian failure. Although the study participants were born in China several decades ago, the findings offer valuable insights into the benefits of proper nutrition during early life stages for women of any culture.
“The findings that natural menopause occurs earlier after prenatal famine exposure suggests that food deprivation during early fetal life affects how long the future ovaries function,” said Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS).
“For those women, if they are not taking estrogen therapy until the average age of menopause, their early menopause could be associated with increased risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, depression, and memory changes and changes in vaginal and sexual health.”
Natural menopause is a milestone of ovarian aging that results in the end of a woman’s reproductive years; it is defined as the absence of periods for at least 12 months. Most women reach menopause between the ages of 45 and 55 (average age is 51).
The new findings are published online in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society.