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New Genes Linked to Fertility and Reproductive Lifespan in Women

Different genes can influence when women start menopause

October 26, 2021
Bridget Houlihan

Main image courtesy of OSU DESIS Lab.

Although we’d all like to stay young, every human must deal with the reality of aging. This process not only has an impact on our outward appearances, but on the cycles of our body’s functional activities. In women, this includes the reproductive cycle. Knowing at what age a woman is likely to undergo menopause can have a big impact on her decisions regarding her family planning options. But what if there was a way to possibly extend the reproductive lifespan of women? In order to dig deeper into this topic, in this article, we’re going to discuss a study done by the University of Exeter that includes:

  • The discovery of new variations of genes and their impact on menopause
  • The impacts of having an earlier or later menopause

What is the Reproductive Lifespan of Women?

How long are a woman’s reproductive years and how that can have an impact on her fertility?

older woman smiling
A woman’s reproductive lifespan starts at menarche and goes until she reaches menopause. Image courtesy of SixtyandMe.

A woman has three distinct phases throughout her life that mark her fertility:

  • Reproductive years. These are what’s known as the years of a woman’s reproductive lifespan. They typically start around 12 or 13 years old when a girl experiences her menarche, or her first period. 
  • Changing into menopause. After around 40 years, a woman’s body will start to make the change into her menopause years. For the next 10 years or so she will experience irregular periods and possibly hot flashes as her hormone levels decrease. 
  • Post-menopause. After about age 50, women will enter the next phase that is known as post-menopause. Pregnancy is no longer possible at this point and ovaries will produce very little estrogen. 

Although there are variations in exactly when a woman hits each stage of her reproductive lifespan, as she ages, it is clear that the quality and quantity of her eggs will decrease. This is why it’s important to know at what point a woman is likely to start menopause, as it may allow her to make choices that will impact her decision to have children at a later age. 

New Genetic Variations in Genes Discovered

Studying reproductive aging and why it matters

man and woman holding hands
Knowing at what age you’re likely to experience menopause can help with fertility choices. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

While we know that menopause is an important part of understanding the reproductive lifespan of women, there is very little scientific research into what exactly impacts when a woman will start menopause. This is what the University of Exeter study sought to shed some much-needed light on. They found that there are around 300 gene variations that can have a substantial impact on the reproductive lifespan of women. In addition, they found that in mice, they could manipulate several of the key genes in order to extend the reproductive lifespan. Not only does this increase our knowledge of reproductive lifespans, but it also offers clues into which women might be predisposed to early menopause.

In order to gain these impactful new insights, scientists from a variety of institutions lent their expertise to help determine what causes the fertility window to close in women at a certain age--some earlier than others. While the lifetimes of humans have increased over the past century, the time when women reach menopause has stayed relatively firm at around 50 years. More and more women are choosing to delay children until later in life, when they’re egg quality and quantity begin to decline. Conception later in life is not impossible, it is just more difficult since the fertility of women decreases as they age. 

The researchers found that the genes involved with determining the start of menopause are connected to DNA repair, and are active both before birth as the eggs are forming, as well as throughout a woman’s lifetime. Using mice, scientists in the study were able to isolate two key genes, CHEK1 and CHEK2, which are responsible for a lot of specific DNA repair responsibilities. When the scientists were able to diminish the functions of CHEK2 and overcompensate and increase the abilities of CHEK1, it led to an approximately 25% longer reproductive lifespan in mice. 

Since mice do not experience menopause like human women, the study also looked at human female subjects that do not naturally have a CHEK2 gene, and who tend to have a later menopause than women with this gene. Experimentation with expressing one of these genes and knocking out the other can influence the age at which women might experience menopause. It can also determine which women might have a higher chance of experiencing an earlier than normal menopause. 

What Does This Mean for Fertility and Family Planning?

How does changing the menopause timeline affect women’s fertility?

pregnant woman sitting on her bed
There are a variety of genes that influence menopause, and scientists have made a breakthrough determining which ones could delay it in the future. Image courtesy of NHS.

Having the ability to know which genes can make an impact on menopause is fantastic, but knowing how to manipulate them to extend the reproductive lifespan is a game changer. Knowing which women are more likely to experience an early menopause can help them plan for the future. Because we are born with all of our genetic material (including variations) women who undergo this type of test can be told while they are still young that there is a higher probability that they may experience an early menopause. The researchers also found that in women who are genetically predisposed to have an earlier menopause, they run the risk of a higher chance of diabetes and declining bone strength, so delaying menopause through gene manipulation may help with those health conditions as well.

Knowing the length of your reproductive lifespan is important for women who want to have children. If their window is shortened due to an early menopause, it would be very helpful to know that as soon as possible. Although more research is needed, this is a great first step to understanding reproductive aging and its effects on women’s fertility.


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