Menopause and the sleepless nights it often causes might make women age faster and lead to age-related health problems, according to two new studies.
The average age of menopause is 51. Once a woman has gone through menopause, she ages about 6 percent faster, according to a study published online last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The other study—published in Biological Psychiatry—showed that insomnia symptoms, including difficulty falling or staying asleep, restless sleep, and waking early, increase a woman’s biological age by about two years.
Menopause and insomnia increase the rate at which the body’s cells age. To measure this process, researchers used a device called an epigenic clock that detects and monitors genetic changes. They then compared the participants’ biological age to their chronological age.
“The epigenetic clock is similar to counting the growth rings of a tree to measure its age,” says Steve Horvath, a professor of human genetics and biostatistics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and senior author of both studies.
Horvath and colleagues analyzed DNA samples from more than 3,100 women enrolled in four large studies. They measured the biological age of blood, saliva, and cheek cells to compare each woman’s chronological age to her body’s biological age. Women who entered menopause at an early time or had their ovaries surgically removed were biologically older than women who experienced menopause later in life.
Alternately, some cells of women who used menopausal hormone therapy were about two years younger than those who didn’t take any hormones.
A second study used the epigenetic clock to see if poor and disrupted sleep influences the rate of biological aging. Using data on more than 2,000 women from the observational arm of the Women’s Health Initiative large trial, researchers found that postmenopausal women who reported five insomnia symptoms, including trouble falling asleep, restless sleep, waking at night, difficulty falling back asleep, and waking early, were roughly two biological years older than women of the same chronological age who had no symptoms at all. If a woman had one or two symptoms of insomnia, researchers found a moderate effect on aging.
“These studies don’t prove causality between early menopause and aging or between sleep disruption and aging,” says JoAnn V. Pinkerton, M.D., executive director of the North American Menopause Society. “But they raise important questions about the role of menopause, sleep disruption, hormone therapy, and aging that hopefully future studies will solve.”
She adds that the findings associating early surgical menopause with accelerated aging should encourage women and their doctors to consider menopausal hormone therapy, “ at least to the age of menopause in women with early menopause.”
For those suffering menopause-related insomnia symptoms, there are a number of behavioral interventions that can help, says Judith Carroll, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and a co-author of the study. They include cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness meditation, and tai chi. She cautions that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and suggests that women explore options and find the intervention that is right for them.
“People can talk to a doctor or professional about symptoms and seek treatment that works,” she says. “There is hope.”