The fact is, menopause happens to all women eventually. It is a natural physiological process that marks the end of fertility in women—cessation of ovulation and menstruation— with the average age at 51.5 years among Kenyan women.
But it can happen as early as the ’30s. Research published in the US National Library of Medicine journal estimates that premature menopause affects 1 per cent of women under the age of 40 years.
Women who undergo premature menopause are at an elevated risk of developing heart disease, osteoporosis and depression.
George Christopher Williams, an evolutionary biologist hypothesised that menopause might be an adaptation. In his explanation, William suggested that older women would avoid reproductive activities and instead focus on enhancing support to the already existing offspring.
This is what he termed as the “grandmother hypothesis”; which is meant to ensure the survival of existing lineage.
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Based on the idea that women would invest more time in family, and the existing hypothesis that married women have a later age on natural menopause than unmarried women, scientists at the University College London observed that women who engage in sexual activity weekly or monthly have a reduced risk of premature menopause compared to those who had some form of sexual activity less than monthly.
Who would have thought that women who are more sexually active would retain fertility for much longer than women who have sex less frequently? Basically, what this means is that women have to use it or lose it!
The association between sexual activity and premature menopause
Women who reported weekly sexual involvement were 28 per cent less likely to experience premature menopause relative to those who engaged in sexual activities less than monthly. According to the study’s first author, PhD candidate Megan Arnot, there exists a biological energy trade-off when a woman ceases to engage in sexual activity.
The body then “chooses” not to invest energy into ovulation as there will be no chance of pregnancy. Interestingly, there was no correlation between sexual frequency and early menopause to the presence or absence of a male partner.
A male partner, therefore, did not play any proxy role—whether proximity to male pheromones slowed down menopause—to menopause timing. However, this does not mean that sexually active women wouldn’t go through menopause.
Effect of pregnancy and breastfeeding on menopause
Generally, pregnancy and breastfeeding reduce the natural depletion of ovarian follicles over time. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts after a 26-year prospective study found out that women with three or more pregnancies and who exclusively breastfed for seven to 12 months had a 32 per cent lower risk of early menopause relative to women with the same number of children who exclusively breastfed for less than a month.
The findings underscore a new insight to prevent early menopause, especially in women with non-confounding health issues.
The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age. Mothers are also encouraged to continue complementary breastfeeding for up to at least one year.
The World Bank, through the United Nations Population and Census, reports estimates the fertility rate—average births — for the Kenyan woman at 3.492. However, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is still uncommon in rural Kenya.
In a study done in Western Kenya adolescent mothers—under the age of 20 years—had a shorter duration of exclusive breastfeeding.
In Kilifi County, scientists from the Kenya Medical Research Institute found that the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding was lowest, 45 per cent in the first month of life, highest in the third month and slightly above 10 per cent of first-time mothers exclusively breastfed for six months.
If the notable relation between pregnancy, breastfeeding and premature menopause is anything to go by, a decline in the average age of menopause among women in this region is foreseeable.