Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Two stupid ideas about menopause, and one that makes sense

July 3rd, 2013 by Laura Wershler

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

The writer with her mother Erna Sawyer who turns 95 on July 20, 2013. Is menopause an “age-related disease” that science must figure out how to prevent or an evolutionary adaptation for longevity?

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.

 

  

12 Responses to “Two stupid ideas about menopause, and one that makes sense”

  1. Sounds to me like the idea is that women take hormonal birth control their whole lives with breaks only for children…that’s the compromise between ovulating too much and ovulating not enough! Dr Oz has recommended this.

  2. Lisa Leger says:

    I call hubris on all these notions that we could possibly rationalize categorize and define the single optimal way life should unfold with our puny human values. Why not embrace all the rich diversity of life outcomes as proper and right? Some live longer than others, some reproduce more, or less, some have curlier hair – what of it? As ecologists keep telling us; diversity is the key to survival at all levels. Whether we’re talking about the variety of organisms it takes to populate a healthy wetlands or a human intestine (or a village…

    • Laura Wershler says:

      Lisa, to be fair to the anthropologists from U of C, they were only suggesting a hypothesis that was at least based on their actual research, not speculation (Prasad) or a computer-generated theory (Singh). I also tried to contact Mary Pavelka for an update and/or clarification on this 2 1/2 year-old quote but I didn’t hear back. Maybe she and her research partner out of the country doing more actual research on Japanese macaques. I used the story about their work to prove my point that there are other explanations for menopause that make a heck of a lot more sense than “no benefit” to menopause, “not normal in nature” or menopause as “age-related disease” due to men preferring younger mating partners. As you point out, there is no one answer to any of this. My biggest complaint is the conclusion that menopause should be “prevented.”

      And I agree with you about hubris. As I’ve been noting in my Tweets about this piece, men, it seems, will take credit for anything, including menopause.

  3. Barbara says:

    My grandmother said that women experience menopause so they will live long enough to raise any children they have! Makes perfect sense to me!

  4. My grandmother said that women experience menopause so that they will live long enough to raise any children they have. Makes perfect sense to me!

    • Laura Wershler says:

      There is also the “grandmother theory” of menopause that says menopause enables women to help raise and care for their grandchildren, ensuring their survival. It’s mentioned in the article about the computer generated theory.

  5. David Linton says:

    Laura, Thanks for this critique of dumb ideas. There’s no end to them. The best discussion of the evolutionary advantages of menopause that I know of is in Leonard Shlain’s Sex, Time & Power. He makes the point that you allude to that due to the “premature” nature of human birth older women are essential to the care and survival of the tribe as their daughters need capable help in caring for children for a prolonged period of time.

  6. Menopause is a direct result of estrogen deficiency. It’s the estrogen levels that dictate what state and age a woman is in. You can keep a woman from suffering the symptoms of menopause by restoring estrogen back to healthy levels. When a woman is out of eggs, she can no longer produce but healthy estrogen levels protect women from the degenerative diseases of aging, including osteoporosis and heart disease. Estrogen restoration can be used as a shield against disease, and make a woman feel alive again. It’s when estrogen is low that a woman deteriorates. There isn’t one chronic female disease that can’t be linked to estrogen deficiency. It’s not about keeping a woman out of menopause, its about her susceptibility to disease, and overall sense of well-being.

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