More sex makes early menopause less likely

The Guardian - - Front Page - Han­nah Devlin Sci­ence correspond­ent

Women who have sex more of­ten are less likely to have an early menopause, ac­cord­ing to re­search that raises the in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­ity that life­style fac­tors could play a more sig­nif­i­cant role than pre­vi­ously thought in de­ter­min­ing when the menopause oc­curs.

The study, based on data col­lected from nearly 3,000 women who were fol­lowed for 10 years, found that those who re­ported en­gag­ing in sex­ual ac­tiv­ity ev­ery week were 28% less likely to have ex­pe­ri­enced menopause at any given age than women who en­gaged in

sex­ual ac­tiv­ity less than ev­ery month. Me­gan Arnot, a PhD stu­dent at UCL and the study’s first author, said the find­ings sug­gested that if a woman was not hav­ing sex – and there is no chance of preg­nancy – the body might “choose” not to in­vest in ovu­la­tion.

“There may be a bi­o­log­i­cal en­er­getic trade-off be­tween in­vest­ing energy into ovu­la­tion and in­vest­ing else­where, such as keep­ing ac­tive by look­ing af­ter grand­chil­dren,” she said.

The find­ings are based on data col­lected from 2,936 women re­cruited into a US menopause study called the SWAN co­hort in the 1990s. The women

were aged 45 years on av­er­age at the start of the study and were mostly mar­ried or in a re­la­tion­ship.

The women were asked ques­tions such as whether they had en­gaged in sex with their part­ner in the past six months, the fre­quency of sex, in­clud­ing whether they en­gaged in sex­ual in­ter­course, oral sex, sex­ual touch­ing or ca­ress­ing in the last six months and whether they had en­gaged in self-stim­u­la­tion in the past six months.

The most fre­quent pat­tern of sex­ual ac­tiv­ity was weekly (64%). None of the women had yet en­tered menopause, but 46% were

start­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence symp­toms of early menopause, such as changes in their pe­riod cy­cle and hot flushes. By the 10-year fol­low-up sur­vey, 45% of the women had ex­pe­ri­enced a nat­u­ral menopause at an av­er­age age of 52.

The study found women of any age who had sex weekly were 28% less likely to ex­pe­ri­ence the menopause at any given age com­pared with those who had sex less than monthly. Those who had sex monthly were 19% less likely to ex­pe­ri­ence menopause than those who had sex less of­ten.

The re­searchers have yet to de­ter­mine the bi­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nism that would re­sult in sex­ual ac­tiv­ity ac­tively in­flu­enc­ing when a woman’s re­pro­duc­tive cy­cle comes to an end.

The menopause is thought to oc­cur when the num­ber of ma­tur­ing egg fol­li­cles in the ovaries drops be­neath a crit­i­cal thresh­old. One pos­si­bil­ity is that sex­ual ac­tiv­ity stim­u­lates re­lease of oe­stro­gen, which plays a role in the com­plex cas­cade of chem­i­cal sig­nals that re­sult in an egg be­ing re­leased.

The study did not test this di­rectly. A chal­lenge, Arnot said, was that “the whole hor­monal mech­a­nisms sur­round­ing the menopause is re­ally poorly un­der­stood”, mean­ing the work does not slot neatly into a wellestab­lished frame­work.

Another pos­si­bil­ity is that how of­ten a woman has sex and her age at menopause are both de­ter­mined by some other hor­monal or bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tor not mea­sured in the study, so the link would not be causal.

The study did not find later menopause linked to liv­ing with a male part­ner, sug­gest­ing ex­po­sure to male pheromones was not the rea­son.

Prof Ruth Mace, an evo­lu­tion­ary an­thro­pol­o­gist at UCL and the pa­per’s se­nior author, said: “The menopause is, of course, an in­evitabil­ity for women, and there is no be­havioural in­ter­ven­tion that will pre­vent re­pro­duc­tive ces­sa­tion.

“None­the­less, these re­sults are an ini­tial in­di­ca­tion that menopause tim­ing may be adap­tive in re­sponse to the like­li­hood of be­com­ing preg­nant.”

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