Thirteen genomic regions appear to influence the age at onset of menopause, according to a genetic study. These regions contain genes involved in DNA repair and immune responses, processes not previously linked to menopause.
The researchers - a large international team of collaborators - hope these findings will help to explain why some women experience menopause early, as well as providing insights into the genetic basis of menopause-related disorders, such as cardiovascular disease and breast cancer.
'Menopause is a process most women go through, yet we know very little about what governs the timing of this key event in a woman's life', said Dr Anna Murray, one of the senior researchers from the University of Exeter, UK. 'By finding out which genes control the timing of menopause we hope to be able understand why this happens very early to some women, reducing their chances of having children naturally'.
Menopause defines the period in which reproductive function in the ovaries ends, and occurs naturally in most women during their 50s. It is marked by a massive change in the regulation of certain hormones and most previous studies have focused on genes related to this process, in particular those involved in oestrogen regulation.
This study, published in Nature Genetics, looked at the genomes of 50,000 women of European descent who had experienced menopause between the ages of 40 and 60. In addition to confirming four previously identified genomic regions, 13 novel ones were identified that appear to influence the timing of menopause in these women. The location of DNA repair and immune response genes within these regions suggests, for the first time, the involvement of other biological processes in the onset of menopause.
Professor Kathryn Lunetta, one of the lead researchers from Boston University, USA, said: 'We hope that as a better understanding of the biological effects of these menopause-related [genomic regions] are uncovered, we will gain new insights into the connections between menopause and cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis and other traits related to ageing, and that this will provide avenues for prevention and treatment of these conditions'.
A similar large-scale study is underway in African-American women to determine whether the genetic risk factors are the same as those identified in women of European descent.