Doctors have devised a test that could tell young women the precise age at which they will no longer be able to have babies. The discovery according to reports could be made even in women as young as 20 years of age.
A blood test that measures levels of a hormone produced by the ovaries could allow women as young as 20 to pinpoint within a few months when they will cease to be fertile.
The procedure would be valuable to women trying to balance careers with having children. Among western women, the menopause occurs on average at 51. However, about 15% of women experience it early, under the age of 45. And in Britain about 110,000 women in their thirties are going through premature menopause at any given time.
Dr Fahimeh Ramezani Tehrani, who led the research, said in a scientific abstract: “Our results suggest that the novel marker anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) [produced by the ovaries] could precisely forecast the age at menopause, even in young women.”
Tehrani analysed levels of anti-Müllerian hormone in 266 women aged 20-49. The hormone controls the development of the cells in the ovaries from which eggs develop.
It was known that levels of the hormone vary between women and also decline with age. Scientists have suspected that changing levels are linked to the menopause but there has been insufficient data to use this knowledge as a predictive tool. By gathering data from a large number of women, Tehrani believes she has created a mathematical model that can predict the age of menopause for any woman.
Details will be revealed tomorrow at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Rome.
The test developed by Tehrani, a senior researcher at the Endocrine Research Centre in Tehran, which is backed by the World Health Organisation, would need to be validated in large-scale trials before it could come into common use.
It could save women suffering the distress of discovering they have left it too late to start a family.
Dr Heather Currie, co-editor of Menopause International, the journal of the British Menopause Society, who is a specialist gynaecologist and obstetrician at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, said the new test, if proven, could have powerful benefits.
“We know there is a link between declines in AMH levels and menopause but the relationship has been unclear so we could not use that knowledge to give more than a rough prediction to within a few years,” Currie said. “A precise test like this would be very useful, particularly to women considering delaying childbirth for family, career or other reasons.
“Early menopause seems to also have a hereditary component so women from such families may want to know if they are at risk.”
As well as helping women to plan when to have children, the test could bring other health benefits. For some women the main concern about having an early menopause is not infertility but the elevated risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. This is linked to the decline in levels of oestrogen, a hormone that helps maintain bone density and protects against hardening of the arteries.