Reproductive factors may influence women’s long-term health

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In a new study published today in BMC Medicine we examined how reproductive factors influenced the risk of all-cause and cause-specific mortality in >300,000 European women that participated in the EPIC study.

A woman’s reproductive characteristics are not always thought of in terms of how they may influence her long-term health but in our recent study we found a link between several reproductive factors and risk of mortality. For example, the risk of all-cause mortality was lower for women who had children versus never had children, those who had ever versus never breastfed, women that had used versus never used oral contraceptives (non-smokers only) and those who experienced their first menstrual period (menarche) at an older age.

We also evaluated several common types of cause-specific death. For example, in our analysis of mortality from circulatory (cardiovascular) diseases, we observed that the following characteristics were associated with a reduction in risk: having given birth, breastfeeding and starting menstruation at age of 15 or older compared to those that started when they were less than 12 years old. Furthermore, a sub-analysis showed a lower risk of death from heart disease in women that have given birth and breastfed as compared with women who had never breastfed.

Further work is needed to confirm these findings and to investigate the mechanisms that may explain the link between reproductive factors and risk of mortality. This study was observational therefore it cannot prove that the links between reproductive factors and mortality risk were causal.

Since reproductive factors are not ‘modifiable’ (something you could change like diet and exercise levels), a key challenge is to determine how to translate these findings to improve women’s health. An interesting approach that has been suggested by other researchers is to mimic the effects of a reproductive exposure. For example, it is known that breastfeeding protects against breast cancer development, therefore researchers have suggested that with a better knowledge of the underlying mechanisms for this association it may be possible to develop a drug that mimics the effects of breastfeeding on the breast.

To move ahead with these types of strategies further studies are needed to identify the mechanisms that link these reproductive exposures to women’s health.

See also the article in BMC Medicine: ‘Reproductive Factors and Risk of Mortality in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition; a Cohort Study‘ and the BioMed Central blog: ‘Reproductive factors and their possible long-term health consequences in women’ .

Melissa Merritt

Melissa Merritt

Melissa Merritt is a Research Fellow at the School of Public Health, Imperial College London, UK. Her current research focuses on dietary, reproductive/hormonal and metabolic factors in relation to risk of mortality, gynaecologic cancer development and survival.
Melissa Merritt

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