Lengthening a woman's fertility may extend her life as well, studies find
As women, we know that our fertility – the ability to have our own biological children – comes with a time limit.
The 'aul biological clock stops for no one, and even though we look younger on the outside for longer, the reality is that our cells and organ still age at a chronological rate.
And when it comes to organs, one organ in particular in a woman's body ages more than twice as fast as all other tissues, wreaking havoc with both fertility and long-term health.
"Ovaries are very strange, very odd in terms of the rest of the human body," says Jennifer Garrison, an assistant professor at California's Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the world's first biomedical research institution devoted exclusively to the science of ageing.
"We can think about them like an accelerated model for human ageing."
Speaking to CNN, Garrison adds:
"When a woman is in her late 20s or early 30s, the rest of her tissue is functioning at peak performance, but her ovaries are already showing overt signs of ageing. Yet most women learn about their ovaries and ovarian function when they go to use them for the first time and find out they're geriatric."
Consequences of ageing ovaries
Garrison explains that the consequences of ageing ovaries extend beyond fertility, especially during menopause, the period of time when a person stops having a menstrual cycle.
"When the ovaries stop working due to menopause, they stop making a cocktail of hormones important for general health. Even in healthy women, it dramatically increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, cognitive decline, insomnia, osteoporosis, weight gain, arthritis -- those are medically established facts."
What researchers have discovered, is that, in fact, the age of menopause is also tied to longevity, and that studies show that women who have later menopause tend to live longer and have an enhanced ability to repair their DNA."
"But women with natural menopause before the age of 40 are twice as likely to die (early) compared with women going through natural menopause between the ages 50 to 54."
And so what if science could learn to slow the rate of ageing in ovaries?
"It would be a game changer, right?" says Garrison.
"Women would have parity and options in their reproductive choices and be empowered with control over their lives. And at the same time, we could delay the onset of these age-related diseases and hopefully extend life."
While extending fertility will be one outcome of the research in the field, scientists aren't trying to help people get pregnant naturally in their 50s, 60s and 70s, Dr Kara Goldman, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, explains.
"That would be a completely irresponsible goal and ultimately a shortsighted one. We're thinking about the bigger picture: The best way to prevent the health impact of menopause is to prolong the ovaries' natural functioning."