In a finding that suggests a woman’s periods might be a powerful indicator of her general health, researchers report that women with irregular and long menstrual cycles face a higher risk of early death.
In a study that spanned 24 years and included more than 79,000 premenopausal women who had no history of heart disease, cancer or diabetes, those who’d always had irregular menstrual cycles were more likely to die before the age of 70 than those who had regular cycles.
“The important point illustrated by this study is that menstrual regularity and reproductive health provides a window into overall long-term health,” Dr. Adam Balen, a professor of reproductive medicine at Leeds Teaching Hospitals in Britain, told CNN.
“Young women with irregular periods need a thorough assessment, not only of their hormones and metabolism but also of their lifestyle so that they can be advised about steps that they can take which might enhance their overall health,” said Balen, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Women who had a usual cycle length of 40 days or more at ages 18-22 and 29-46 were more likely to die prematurely than those who had a usual cycle length of 26-31 days in the same age ranges.
These associations were strongest for deaths from heart disease, compared to cancer or other causes. The increased risk was also slightly stronger among smokers, according to the study published Sept. 30 in the BMJ medical journal.
The findings suggest that a woman’s menstrual cycle should be considered an important sign of general health throughout her childbearing years, the researchers said in a journal news release. They were led by Jorge Chavarro, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
They said the associations between long and irregular menstrual cycles and increased risk of premature death are likely due to hormone disruptions. But the study did not prove that irregular periods actually caused early death, just that there was an association.
Irregular and long menstrual cycles are common among women of reproductive age and have been linked with a higher risk of major chronic diseases including ovarian cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and mental health problems.
However, there’s been little previous evidence to link irregular or long menstrual cycles with early death risk.
“These data will encourage future interrogation of menstrual symptoms and pathologies as an indicator of long-term health outcomes and may provide an early opportunity to implement preventative strategies to improve women’s health across the life span,” Dr. Jacqueline Maybin told the Science Media Centre in London, CNN reported. She is a senior research fellow and consultant gynecologist at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Reproductive Health.
“A specific underlying cause of irregular menstruation may increase the risk of premature death, rather than the irregular bleeding, per se,” said Maybin, who was not involved in the research. “We already know that women with polycystic ovarian syndrome [PCOS], a leading cause of irregular periods, have an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer of the womb. It is important that women with PCOS speak to their doctor to reduce these risks.”
The U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has more on menstrual irregularities.
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