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Is there a way to give women more fertile years and delay the onset of menopause? New research reveals it might be possible.
An interdisciplinary study published to the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology developed a mathematical model that suggests it's possible to postpone the onset of menopause by implanting a woman's previously harvested and cryogenically preserved ovarian tissue back into her body.
Ovarian tissue cryopreservation is a technique that has been used for cancer patients before undergoing treatment to help preserve fertility. Ovarian tissue (which contains immature eggs) is removed and preserved at temperatures as low as negative 320 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 195 degrees Celsius). At some point in the future, the thawed tissue is transplanted back into the patient and can restore ovarian function within three months.
Dr. Kutluk Oktay, a leading clinician, ovarian surgeon, ovarian biologist and director of the Laboratory of Molecular Reproduction and Fertility Preservation at Yale School of Medicine who led the study, believes the procedure can be used for healthy women to "potentially delay or eliminate menopause." According to Oktay, a woman's age at time of tissue harvesting greatly impacts how long menopause could be delayed, since the eggs are of "higher quality."
"As a reproductive endocrinologist and a clinician-scientist, I believe it is time that we take a closer look at menopause, rather than accepting it as fate," Oktay said in a statement to Yahoo Canada. "Menopause should be a choice, not a destiny. Women now spend over a third of their lives in menopause, many facing its associated complications. As we have been doing with the other consequences of aging, it is time to look at solutions to delay the process. Only through multidisciplinary work that we can accomplish this."
Sean Lawley an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Utah, one of the study's co-authors, says it's possible women could be well into their 90s before they begin developing menopause symptoms.
"The math predicts that the menopause delay under certain circumstances could be 40 years or more. So if menopause happens on average age at 51, then you're talking menopause in the 90s and that's longer than most people live," Lawley recently told the University of Colorado.
"The math predicts that the menopause delay under certain circumstances could be 40 years or more."Sean Lawley
Is delaying menopause good for women's health?
While Lawley says "a lot of the interest behind delaying menopause is fertility" there could be other health benefits to postponing menopause.
"Menopause is associated with many health issues relating to cardiovascular disease, bone density, obesity, etc," Lawley said. "Keeping ovaries functioning longer might delay or even prevent these health issues from starting."
Dr. Michelle Jacobson, a menopause specialist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, says the research would be a benefit for people who experience premature ovarian insufficiency, have had their ovaries removed or have gone into early menopause because of cancer treatments. When it comes to the benefits of delaying menopause in the general population, more studies are required.
"The big question is, it's really not clear if it's safe that women should still be making normal reproductive levels of hormones once they get above menopause age," Jacobson, who was not involved in the study, tells Yahoo Canada.
Jacobson adds there is some data that shows women who go through menopause "much later than average" might have more heart disease.
"It's not a slam dunk that we should delay menopause for everybody," Jacobson explains. "Delaying menopause is not the same as giving hormone replacement therapy because hormone therapy doses are much, much lower. The benefit for young women is clear, it would be great if we could stop them from going through menopause prematurely. But the benefit for average aged women is not clear."
A step in the right direction
Although there are many questions that remained unanswered, Jacobson thinks it's "wonderful" that menopause and menopause research is becoming a topic of public conversation.
"I think it's very exciting that scientists care about menopause in women," she says. "And I think it's a bit of a testament to the fact that menopause is being talked about for the first time ever and that older women are not being ignored as they have been in the past. So that we're focusing on menopause in a positive way. I think that that's wonderful.”