Having an irregular or long menstrual cycle is associated with greater risk of dying before age 70, according to a new study of more than 80,000 people over two decades.
Participants with consistently irregular periods, cycles of 40 or more days, or who missed their periods all together were more likely to have health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes, the study found.
Researchers theorize that disruptions in reproductive hormones can indicate other concerns including risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and more.
Menstrual cycles can be an important marker of health — having irregular or disrupted periods has previously been associated with myriad illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic problems, and even mental health issues.
According to a new study, a person’s period may also impact their lifespan.
Data from nearly 80,000 people linked long, irregular periods to greater risk of dying before age 70, according to a study published today in the British Medical Journal.
The team, made up of scientists from Harvard and Tongji Medical College in China, said the results suggest hormonal disruption is a major factor in health and lifespan for people who menstruate, increasing risks of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes.
A strong correlation between irregular periods and early death
The researchers looked at data from 79,505 American nurses between age 25 and 42, part of a cohort study beginning in 1989.
The study followed up every two years until 2013, collecting data on participants’ lifestyle and health, including the regularity and duration of their menstrual cycles. At the start of the study, women were asked to recall information about their periods from ages 14-17.
After controlling for other variables, they found that women who consistently experienced irregular or long menstrual cycles (of 40 days or more, compared to the usual 26-30) had up to 41-71% higher relative risk of dying early, often of cardiovascular illnesses. The risk was approximately 66% to 71% higher for smokers with irregular, long cycles compared to those with regular periods who didn’t smoke.
Participants who missed periods during adolescence and adulthood were twice as likely to have high blood pressure, and were also more prone to high cholesterol, diabetes, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids.
Birth control use may be a complicating factor, data shows
Missing periods due to birth control was linked to a higher risk of death in young adolescents, but not in adults.
Women who reported using oral contraceptives between age 14 and 17 were more likely to die prematurely than those who experienced regular periods during this time. That may be because participants using birth control at that age were prescribed the medication to treat existing reproductive health issues, such as endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome.
However, birth control use from age 18 onward wasn’t linked to risk of mortality, according to the study.
Evidence suggests periods may be a good marker of overall health
This study can’t establish cause and effect, and it would be difficult to do so, as researchers can’t randomly assign participants to menstruate irregularly and study the results.
However, this research supports existing evidence that reproductive health issues can be an important risk factor of other potential health concerns such as heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. It also indicates that disrupted reproductive hormones are associated with other chemical imbalances, including insulin resistance.
As such, the study’s authors make a case for including data on menstrual cycles as part of primary care through adolescence and adulthood.
“Our results emphasize the need for primary care providers to include menstrual cycle characteristics throughout the reproductive life span as additional vital signs in assessing women’s general health status,” the authors wrote in the study’s conclusions.
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