The Evolution of Menopause
Why do women go through menopause when men remain fertile through most of their adult life? While the jury is still out, one recent interesting theory is based on a growing body of evidence theorizing menopause is a relatively recent genetic evolutionary trait that emerged within the last 5,000 to 50,000 years. While all women who live long enough eventually experience menopause, the evidence shows different ethnicities experience menopause uniquely, suggesting a genetic component. For example, white women experience hot flushes more often than Asian women, and black women complete the menopause transition on average 4 years earlier than white women. Disease risks also appear to have a genetic component even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors.
Menopause results in the end of a woman’s reproductive years historically followed by a systemic decline in all body systems and progressive physiological deterioration that impacted our mothers and grandmothers. Thankfully, recent advances in research and education on menopause are allowing women to live longer healthier lives, but we still have so much more to learn.
The end of reproductive life seems to contradict classic evolutionary theory promoting survival of the species. For example, males remain fertile through the lifespan, as we know by the recent births of late-life children fathered by famous actors like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, both in their 80’s. Most animal species do as well, with notable exceptions of women and chimpanzees. Theories abound, but most are based on outdated presumptions somewhat insulting to modern women such as the “male preference theory” that presumes men are biologically attracted to young women because they are fertile and can reproduce or the “grandmother theory” that suggests the purpose of women living past their reproductive years is to help raise grandkids. Many women help raise their grandkids by choice, but few would agree it’s the only reason they are living past middle age!
Maybe the reason for menopause is in the ethnic diversity and characteristics of the experience that suggest it may be an evolutionary trait. The implications to that theory suggest menopause could de-evolve, be delayed, or eventually be eliminated in the remote future. In the meantime, here-and-now, thankfully there is a growing focus on menopause research as midlife women demand answers on how to manage their health to live productive lives through the lifespan. It’s about time!