December 2016 Health Bulletin

Menopause accelerates biological ageing

Age at menopause and biomarkers of biological ageing have been shown to be associated in a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, August 2016. (Menopause accelerates biological ageing. Levine ME et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2016 Aug 16;113(33):9327-32.)

The study suggests that menopause accelerates the epigenetic ageing process in blood. That is, menopause may cause changes in gene expression and have an effect on biological ageing. This silencing or positive expression of genes may change how quickly women age and, possibly, experience age-related disease.

Epigenetics is the study of how genes become active or inactive (gene expression) and their effects on major biological processes such as cancer, ageing, and the development of diseases. Epigenetics is not the changing of the underlying gene structure (our DNA), but rather the action of chemical processes “on top of “ the DNA code which changes how our cells read the genes. It is a regular occurrence and natural occurrence but can be influenced by age, illness, the environment and lifestyle.

Studies have shown women in families who have greater longevity tend to have a later menopause. And there are other factors influencing reproductive ageing such as smoking, lifetime socioeconomic circumstances, infant growth, breastfeeding and childhood cognitive ability. The “epigenetic clock”, a measurement of markers of biological ageing, links increased epigenetic age acceleration in women with an earlier menopause.

Results also suggest that surgical menopause (removal of the ovaries) is associated with increased epigenetic age of blood and saliva, and menopausal hormone therapy is associated with decreased epigenetic age in buccal mucosa. A SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism or difference in a single DNA building block in a person's genes) relating to age at menopause has been shown to be related to epigenetic ageing. The different results across various tissue types (blood, saliva and buccal mucosa) may be caused by different rates of ageing of tissues within an individual.

The researchers concluded that based on the epigenetic clock the hormonal changes of menopause may accelerate biological ageing in women. Further research is required to determine if using MHT (menopausal hormone therapy) will slow or reverse these changes.

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