Women could soon find out how long they have left to start a family thanks to a blood test that determines when they will go through menopause, scientists reported today at the conference for the European Society Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE).
The test, which was proved accurate to within four months, measures the levels of a hormone called anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH). AMH is produced by the ovaries and controls the development of follicles (fluid-filled ovary sacs in which eggs mature).
Study leader Dr Fahimeh Ramezani Tehrani said: 'We believe that our estimates of ages at menopause based on AMH levels are of sufficient validity to guide medical practitioners in their day-to-day practice, so that they can help women with their family planning'.
As part of a 12 year study, Iranian scientists recruited 266 volunteers, then aged between 20 and 49, who were taking part in a larger study of heart disease risk factors. The researchers monitored levels of AMH at intervals of three years. Of the 266 women, 63 went through the menopause during the study period. Low levels of AMH indicated women would go through the menopause early.
'We were able to show that there was a good level of agreement between ages at menopause estimated by our model, and the actual age at menopause for a subgroup of 63 women who reached menopause during the study', said Dr Tehrani.
Tehrani added: 'Considering that this is a small study that has looked at women over a period of time, larger studies starting with women in their twenties and following them for several years are needed to validate the accuracy'.
On average women reach the menopause around the age of 52. However, around one per cent have a menopause under the age of 40, and five to ten per cent under the age of 45. Women with a mother or aunt who had the menopause early are known to be at risk.
Stuart Lavery, spokesperson for the British Fertility Society, said: 'AMH probably represents the best thing we have at the moment [for predicting menopause age].....I would be concerned, though, if women were too reassured by this, and thought that because they have a certain AMH level at 25 they don't need to be concerned about their fertility. People should be very cautious about making judgments about their reproductive potential based on the currently available tests'.
Clare Lewis-Jones, of the patient charity Infertility Network UK, said: 'Although further research is needed, finding an accurate way to predict the age at which a woman will reach the menopause will be extremely helpful to those considering when to have children '.
She added that: 'It is important that women are also made aware that other factors can affect their chances of conceiving such as blocked fallopian tubes. Although test results could point to a potential problem with egg reserves and perhaps lead women to seek advice early, a normal result could lull a woman into a false sense of security about her future fertility'.