New research out of the University of California Los Angeles has revealed that menopause and its accompanying symptom insomnia are accelerating the aging process.
This was a dual study, with findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Biological Psychiatry this month. These factors may be increasing the risk of age-related diseases and earlier death in women.
Senior author of the study and professor of Human Genetics and Biostatistics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, Steve Horvath, notes that for decades scientists have disagreed on whether menopause is caused by aging or aging is caused by menopause. It is a constant debate similar to the chicken and the egg theory: which one came first? This study is the first to show evidence that it is menopause and its related sleeping disorder that is causing aging.
Judith Carroll, one of the researchers of the study and associate professor of Psychiatry at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, reminds readers that restorative sleep is essential to overall well-being. Sleep deprivation may be affecting our biological clocks in addition to our mental functioning during the day.
The women who were studied reported restless sleep, frequent awakenings, waking too early in the morning, and trouble falling asleep at night. These women tended to be biologically older than women of the same chronological age without similar symptoms.
Both studies used a biological clock, which was developed by Dr. Horvath and has been widely used for tracking the epigenetic shift in the genome associated with the clock. Of note, epigenetics is the study of DNA changes in packaging, which influences the expression of the genes but not the sequence itself.
Connecting Menopause to Aging
One of the studies in this research was focused on linking menopause to aging. The scientists tracked methylation, which is a biomarker that is associated with aging. They analyzed DNA samples from over 3100 women in four large studies. One of the studies is the large 15-year research program from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), which looked at the most common causes of disability, death, and poor quality of life in postmenopausal women.
The biological age of cells in the saliva, blood, and inside of the cheek were measured and recorded. This was done to determine the difference between chronological age and biological age.
Dr. Horvath noted that cellular aging is increased by an average of 6% due to menopause. That may seem like a low number, but it does add up over the lifespan. For example, a woman who goes into early menopause at 42 will be a year older in eight years than a woman who entered menopause at age 50.
The younger the woman is at the start of menopause, the faster her body’s biological cells and blood will age. This is an important finding since the blood can determine what is happening in the rest of the body, which has implications for disease risk and early death.
The Link and Importance of Quality Sleep
This study looked closely at sleep patterns of more than 2000 women in the WHI study. The biological clock noted that women who were postmenopausal and had at least five symptoms of insomnia were biologically an average of two years older than women of the same chronological age but with no symptoms.
While scientists cannot confirm that insomnia leads to increased biological age, the findings are still significant and can be a foundation for further research into the effects of insomnia in postmenopausal women. The same women in this study will need to be followed in the future to determine the cause-and-effect relationship between sleep disorders and biological age.
These findings may seem daunting for many women, but Dr. Horvath notes that the biological epigenetic clock can help physicians in the future determine proper hormone replacement therapies and treatment interventions for sleep disorders. The real question is which treatment plan will help offset the aging process the most without risking overall health and well-being.
Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.