U.S. doctors have discovered that women who go through a premature menopause are more likely to suffer a potentially fatal brain haemorrhage or a cerebral aneurysm.
This occurs when part of the artery weakens and swells.
The artery can then burst and cause a stroke or death, with half of those suffering a cerebral aneurysm likely to die.
The new U.S. research is part of a growing body of evidence pointing to the staggering toll on a woman’s overall health associated with early menopause — a concern because more women are being diagnosed with the disorder.
Most scientists define a premature menopause, or premature ovarian failure (POF), as occurring when a woman’s ovaries stop working before the age of 40, though some studies include women up to the age of 45.
As well as cerebral aneurysm, they are also at greater risk of heart disease – they are 50% more likely to die and 80% more likely to suffer from heart disease than women who go through the menopause between the ages of 52 to 55.
A study last year by Imperial College London found that women who had early menopause were also twice as likely to have a poor quality of life in health terms.
Another study, by the Mayo Clinic in the U.S., found that affected women had a greater risk of dying early, developing heart disease, neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, psychiatric disorders and osteoporosis.
Women were particularly likely to die early or develop heart disease if they’d not been taking HRT following their early menopause, said the researchers.
“These recent studies are telling us what we have suspected for some time, but until now no one has done the work to quantify it,” says Dr. Kevin Harrington, a consultant gynaecologist at the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London.
The trigger for all this is dramatically falling levels of the hormone oestrogen.
“Oestrogen plays a very important role in maintaining the health of all the connective tissues in the body,” Dr. Kevin Harrington says.
“This includes blood vessels, skin, ligaments and bones.”
The deteriorating quality of the blood vessels in the brain is responsible for conditions such as strokes. Low oestrogen affects connective tissues in the eyes and mouth, too, which is why these patients are more prone to gum disease, tooth loss and cataracts.
The thyroid gland can also be affected, says Dr. Kevin Harrington.
This is possibly because auto-immune diseases are thought to be a major cause of premature menopause.
“It may be the kind of person whose body produces antibodies that attack the ovaries is also prone to producing antibodies that attack the thyroid.”
Lifestyle may be to blame. The Imperial College study found a link with smoking.
Further research last year also suggested a link between premature menopause and PFCs – chemicals found in non-stick pans and food packaging. The women with the highest levels of PFCs in their body had the lowest levels of oestrogen in their blood.
Genetics may play a part, too, with women more likely to go through early menopause if their mother did. However, doctors say more research is needed.
Furthermore, the success in treating cancer in children, adolescents and women of child-bearing age might lie behind some cases of POF – for instance, premature menopause can be a side-effect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Clearly early diagnosis is key, yet despite improved recognition of POF, campaigners say much more could be done.
A recent British Menopause Society report noted some doctors were still unaware of the need to protect prematurely menopausal women against future illness and called for the creation of a national register of all such patients to ensure they receive correct advice and care.
Campaigners are also calling for HRT to be made free of prescription charge for women who’ve suffered a premature menopause.