Life-course origins of the ages at menarche and menopause
Michele R Forman,1 Lauren D Mangini,1 Rosenie Thelus-Jean,2 Mark D Hayward3
1Nutritional Sciences, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, 2Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army, Washington DC, 3Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA
Abstract: A woman's age at menarche (first menstrual period) and her age at menopause are the alpha and omega of her reproductive years. The timing of these milestones is critical for a woman's health trajectory over her lifespan, as they are indicators of ovarian function and aging. Both early and late timing of either event are associated with risk for adverse health and psychosocial outcomes. Thus, the search for a relationship between age at menarche and menopause has consequences for chronic disease prevention and implications for public health. This article is a review of evidence from the fields of developmental biology, epidemiology, nutrition, demography, sociology, and psychology that examine the menarche–menopause connection. Trends in ages at menarche and menopause worldwide and in subpopulations are presented; however, challenges exist in constructing trends. Among 36 studies that examine the association between the two sentinel events, ten reported a significant direct association, two an inverse association, and the remainder had null findings. Multiple factors, including hormonal and environmental exposures, socioeconomic status, and stress throughout the life course are hypothesized to influence the tempo of growth, including body size and height, development, menarche, menopause, and the aging process in women. The complexity of these factors and the pathways related to their effects on each sentinel event complicate evaluation of the relationship between menarche and menopause. Limitations of past investigations are discussed, including lack of comparability of socioeconomic status indicators and biomarker use across studies, while minority group differences have received scant attention. Suggestions for future directions are proposed. As research across endocrinology, epidemiology, and the social sciences becomes more integrated, the confluence of perspectives will yield a richer understanding of the influences on the tempo of a woman's reproductive life cycle as well as accelerate progress toward more sophisticated preventive strategies for chronic disease.
Keywords: reproductive aging, growth, socioeconomic status, biomarker, ovarian function
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