New research may lead to a genetic test to identify women at risk of early menopause before the process begins. The test could inform women of the risk at a much earlier age than currently available methods, allowing them to make more informed choices as to when they have children.
Researchers from the UK studied four genes previously linked to the menopause and found the presence of each was associated with an increased risk of early onset. Where the four genes were combined the risk association with early menopause was more significant.
'These findings are the first stage in developing an easy and relatively inexpensive genetic test', said lead author Dr Anna Murray from the University of Exeter.
The onset of menopause is associated with a fall in the number of eggs in the ovary to below about 1,000. Although the average age at which menopause begins is 51 years, some women experience early menopause defined as onset before the age of 46.
Current tests detect changes in the levels of certain hormones or involve ultrasound scans to look for a rapidly decreasing number of eggs in the ovary and other indicators. These tests can only be used in the immediate premenopausal period when conception is already likely to be difficult. A genetic test, on the other hand, can be taken at any time.
Dr Allan Pacey, a fertility expert from Sheffield University said: 'This could help the growing numbers of women who delay having children until towards the end of their reproductive life and then find to their horror that they have gone through, or are approaching, early menopause, and so their egg quality is very poor'.
'Given that women are increasingly older when they start having their families then a result like this should be able to tell those women at risk that they shouldn't hang about, even if that's before they ideally want to have children, because you can't turn the clock back once an early menopause has happened', he added.
The study arises from a collaboration between the University of Exeter and the Institute of Cancer Research and involved 4,000 women from the Breakthrough Generations Study - half of whom had experienced early menopause. The research is published in Human Molecular Genetics.