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Early Menopause is Bad News for Women and Their Bones

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Let’s face it.  None of us looks forward to getting old, but we try to do it with as much grace as possible.  For some women though, menopause, a hormonal change that should come later in life, comes sooner than expected.  Instead of dealing with hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings and all the other symptoms of menopause in their 50s, they’re facing it in their 40s or even younger.  And as if early menopause isn’t bad enough, studies now show that it increases their risk for osteoporosis and even shortens their life expectancy.

Swedish researchers from Skane University Hospital in Malmo conducted a study of almost 400 women over the course of just under 30 years.  They found that of the women who started menopause before the age of 47, 56 percent developed osteoporosis compared to just 30 percent in the women who started menopause later in life.  Women suffering from osteoporosis are at greater risk for bone fractures, bone pain, and loss of height due to bone loss.  Their findings also showed that women who had undergone early menopause had a greater risk of fragility fracture and death with a rate 17 percent higher than the women with later menopause.  The rate of fractures in women with early menopause was 44% compared to 31% in those women who entered menopause later.

The cause of early menopause is not yet clear, though there seems to be a link between it and premature ovarian failure, hysterectomies, chemotherapy, and possibly even stress.  Premature ovarian failure has been associated with Fragile X syndrome, so there may be a genetic link. Unfortunately, preventing and reversing early menopause is not yet possible, but there are ways to decrease your risk of osteoporosis.  The bone masses of most women peaks in their 20s.  You can increase yours by getting plenty of calcium, vitamin D and exercise.  A balanced diet and thirty minutes of weight training or other moderate exercise every day can make big difference when it comes to your bone health.

The association found between early menopause, osteoporosis, and death is causing some to call for more studies to determine a more definite correlation. The higher mortality rate in women with early menopause does need further study in order to address the confounding variables, such lifestyle, medications and smoking.  In the meantime, we should take the results as a warning to take care of our bodies, particularly our bones, as early as possible.

— Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.