Two new suppositions about menopause have been tossed around the media in recent weeks. They make for racy headlines but both, unfortunately, perpetuate the myth that menopause is a disease women need to be protected from.
Most recent was the assertion by researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, that menopause in women is the unintended consequence of men’s preference for younger mates.
Men to blame for menopause
Evolutionary biologist Rama Singh, co-author of the study published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, gave this explanation in a CBC news story: “What we’re saying is that menopause will occur if there is preferential mating with younger women and older women are not reproducing.”
The study used computer modelling to arrive at this hypothesis. Singh said that this “very simple theory”…”demystifies menopause…It becomes a simple age-related disease, if you can call it that.”
Well, no Mr. Singh, you can can’t call menopause a disease. I challenged this idea in response to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Death Loves Menopause ads in February 2012.
Yet there he is, hoping his work will prompt research on how to prevent menopause in women, helping us to maintain better health as we age. What does he really know about menopause anyway?
Another stupid idea about menopause surfaced in late May with headlines like: Women could evolve out of menopause ‘because it is no benefit to them.’
Women could evolve out of menopause
The story, covered by media everywhere, was based on comments by biologist and science writer Aarthi Prasad at the 2013 Telegraph Hay Festival, Britain’s leading festival of ideas.
The Daily Mail reported that if women evolve out of menopause we could then have children well into our 50s (But how many women want to?), and that “targeted gene therapies will be developed to treat the condition.”
We’ve been fighting the assumption that menopause is a “condition” that needs to be treated for decades, with members of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at the forefront of this assumption-busting.
Quoted in The Telegraph, Prasad also said, “What we think is normal is not normal for nature. If it is something not in all mammals, is it something necessary or beneficial for us? I do not see any benefits.”
Wow! Menopause is not “normal for nature.” But what about the argument made by doctors like Elsimar Coutinho who promote menstrual cycle suppression, who assert incessant ovulation (i.e. reproductive capacity) is not natural, normal or healthy in humans, therefore we should take drugs to stop it?
These doctors and scientists need to get on the same page. Which is it? Do we ovulate too much or do we not ovulate enough?
As for “no benefits” to menopause consider this: What if menopause is an evolutionary adaptation that works in women’s favor?
Do women live longer, healthier lives because of menopause?
An October 2010 story in The Calgary Herald - Why don’t monkeys go through menopause? - discussed the research of University of Calgary anthropologists Mary Pavelka and Linda Fedigan who’ve spent years documenting the aging and reproductive histories of Japanese female macaques.
Few study subjects lived past their reproductive capacity, about age 25, and those that did showed signs of serious physical deterioration. For these primates, retaining the ability to reproduce until late in life did not make them healthier. Fedigan noted that they were “crippled up with arthritis, their face is all wrinkled and their fur is falling out.”
The question, they noted, was why would human females lose their ability to reproduce in healthy middle age?
“One hypothesis is that it’s a byproduct of evolution for longevity in humans,” Pavelka said.
Now here’s an idea that makes sense. Think about it. Men produce sperm – albeit of dwindling quantity and quality – until they die; women transition to menopause and can live healthy lives for decades after. Women live significantly longer than men. Therefore, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that menopause supports longevity in women.
What Prasad proposes – doing away with menopause through natural or scientific means – could then be considered a devolution not an evolution.
As for Rama Singh and his research team, let’s give NPR writer Anna Haensch the last word on this silly, mathematically-determined, computer-generated hypothesis:
“What does this mean for us? Assuming this model is correct, if older women begin to eschew paunchy, balding partners in favor of younger mates, male menopause could become a reality in a few thousand years.”
Bring it on! Men should be so lucky to keep us company in our healthy old age.