As much as we hate to admit it, it’s hard to find many things that our moms were wrong about. From the most basic (eat your veggies!) to the most complex (bad boys will always break your heart!), their words of advice were thoughtful, poignant, and basically spot on. But it’s funny that, no matter how much we talked and shared with the woman who gave us life, the sordid details of her menstrual cycle, her fertility, and her menopause are all too often taboo subjects. When did you get your first period, did you have trouble getting pregnant, did you suffer multiple miscarriages, and when did you go through menopause are questions that over half of our patients have never discussed with their mothers. When asked, they stare back blankly, and together we attempt to piece together a timeline of events based on when their mother was shouting, “I’m too hot, I’m too cold” multiple times a day.
Much of what dictates the timeline of reproductive life (first period to the last period) is unknown. Why some women go through menopause at 30 and others at 60 remains in many ways a mystery. Sure, women who are given certain types of chemotherapy or have multiple surgeries on their ovaries will frequently have a shortened “reproductive life,” but for most women who experience the premature stop, we don’t have good answers to the question of why. As frustrating as this is for the patient, it can be in many ways equally as frustrating for us as doctors. We, like you, want answers. Not knowing why something happened can often make the experience even harder to deal with.
Here’s what we do know. We know that a large piece of the reproductive life timeline puzzle can be answered by genetics. Genes inherited from your mother will frequently dictate your personal reproductive path. Because of this, when we see a girl who is late to have her first period or a woman who appears to be going through an early menopause, we ask detailed questions about the family history, specifically the female members of the family. We can often find reassurance (in a girl who is late to get her first period) or an answer (in a woman who is having an early menopause) when we put a microscope to the women on your family tree.
Despite major strides in genetic testing, most of the genes that make us who we are, particularly our ability to reproduce, still elude us. But while we may not know exactly what genes are controlling how fast our eggs disappear, we do know that how it all went down for your mom, your grandmother, and your older sisters is important. Simply stated, if your mom had menopause before the average age (~51), you should know about it, and you should consider doing something about it. In fact, research has shown us that we tend to have a pretty hard time getting pregnant about 10 years before our mom went through menopause.
So let’s do some math; if your mom had an early menopause at 45, you may have some serious fertility issues at 35! (Remember, menopause is defined as one year without a period.) If you ask your mom and she remembers mood changes, irregular cycles, and hot flashes starting at 45 but her last period was at 50, her menopause was at 51 (get it?). The fun and wonderful changes associated with menopause (aka the peri-menopause or menopausal transition) can actually go on for several years before the real hammer (menopause) is dropped.
It’s safe to say that, in 10 years, our knowledge about the genes that code for reproduction will be vastly different from what we know today. Genetics is the fastest growing field in medicine; long gone are the days of Mendel and his fruit flies! Pretty soon, you might know more about yourself (and your future children) than you even dreamed (or desired) possible. We don’t want to go all Pandora and her box on you, but remember that, with discovery can come disappointment. So while we all wish to know more about ourselves, some information can be hard to swallow.
But here’s the simple take-home message: we can’t predict a whole lot about what will happen to your ovaries just by looking at you. But we can predict a lot by talking to you. Start the conversation with your mom, your sister, and your gynecologist early. Know your own body as well as what happened to your mom and grandmother’s body. Whether you look like your mom or not does not dictate whether your insides do. If you want to plan for your reproductive future, the best person to seek advice from is your mom. Once again, she knows best.
While much of what dictates the timeline of a woman’s “reproductive life” (first period to the last period) and a woman’s fertility is unknown, many of these answers are in our genes (aka what happened to your mom or your grandmother may very well happen to you). What we don’t know today about the genes that dictate fertility (specifically egg quantity and quality), we will likely know in a few tomorrows. Genetics is the fastest-growing field in medicine.