The menstrual cycle is referred to by many doctors as the “fifth vital sign,” as it can be an indicator of overall health in many women. A recent study, published in the BMJ, may have confirmed its importance, revealing that there is a serious correlation between irregular periods and premature death.
What Harvard researchers found
Irregular periods affect up to 14% of women. The study, led by Harvard researchers, followed a group of almost 80,000 women over a period of 24 years. All of the participants in the study were nurses with no prior history of heart disease, cancer or diabetes. They also were controlled for diet, exercise habits and mental health history. The nurses were sent questionnaires every two years to collect up to date information on their lifestyle, diet, health, etc.
By the end of the 24-year study, researchers discovered that 1,975 of the women passed away before the age of 70. The study also revealed that a large portion of the women who passed at a younger age struggled with irregular periods.
“We found that the risk of premature mortality was higher among women who reported long or irregular cycles later in life,” the authors wrote.
A regular menstrual cycle is defined as being a length of 26-31 days. Anything more or less than that is considered irregular. For this study, women who reported irregularity between the ages of 18 and 22 showed a 37% higher risk of early death.
There was also a positive correlation between irregularity and cancer for women in younger age groups. For older women, irregularity indicated an increased chance of cardiovascular disease.
“Importantly, these associations are not restricted to polycystic ovary syndrome or other gynecological or endocrine conditions that might result in irregular menstrual periods,” study author Dr. Jorge E. Chavarro said.
Should you be worried?
However, while this study did reveal some important correlations between irregular menstrual cycles and women’s health, experts say it’s important to note that it did not prove any causation.
“What this study will hopefully achieve is to raise awareness about menstrual irregularity, increase education and encourage women and doctors to consider the menstrual cycle when assessing health,” King’s College reproductive physiologist Kim Jonas said. “However, this study does not mean that all women who have experienced irregular menstrual cycles should be concerned. There is a lot more research to be done in this area and many factors are likely to be at play.”
Research fellow and gynecologist Jacqueline Maybin echoed this, adding that irregular menstruation is typically a symptom of a problem, rather than the root problem itself.
“A specific underlying cause of irregular menstruation may increase the risk of premature death, rather than the irregular bleeding, per se,” she said. “We already know that women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a leading cause of irregular periods, have an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer of the womb. It is important that women with PCOS speak to their doctor to reduce these risks.”
This is true in many cases of irregular, and especially long menstrual cycles. For many who struggle with this, there is an associated risk of chronic illnesses such as ovarian cancer, coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and mental health concerns.
There are several factors to be aware of when it comes to this study in particular. One being that every participant was a registered nurse. Nurses work long hours — usually 12-hour shifts or longer — and often work overnight. This type of work can wear on the body over time and often has an impact on long-term health.
That being said, this still supports the guidance that the menstrual cycle should be an indicator of overall health and considered an additional vital sign.
“The important point illustrated by this study is that menstrual regularity and reproductive health provides a window into overall long-term health,” Dr. Adam Balen, a professor of reproductive Medicine at Leeds Teaching Hospitals in the UK said. “Young women with irregular periods need a thorough assessment not only of their hormones and metabolism but also of their lifestyle so that they can be advised about steps that they can take which might enhance their overall health.”
So while every woman with an irregular cycle shouldn’t be too alarmed right now, experts agree that this study is a step in the right direction when it comes to understanding women’s health.
“This study is a real step forward in closing the data gap that exists in women’s health. It raises many interesting research questions and areas of future study,” Mayben said. “These data will encourage future interrogation of menstrual symptoms and pathologies as an indicator of long-term health outcomes and may provide an early opportunity to implement preventative strategies to improve women’s health across the lifespan.”