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Irregular Menstrual Cycles Tied to Shorter Lifespans

Irregular menstrual cycles may be associated with an early death, a new study suggests.

Researchers followed 79,505 women participating in a large long-term health study. The women reported on the length and regularity of their cycles at ages 14 to 17, 18 to 22, and 29 to 46 years. At the start, none had a history of cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes. The study is in BMJ.

Over 24 years of follow-up, there were 1,975 deaths before age 70, including 894 from cancer and 172 from cardiovascular disease.

At all ages, compared with women with regular periods of average length (26 to 31 days), those with irregular or longer cycles were at higher risk for early death. For example, women who always had irregular periods at ages 18 to 22 had a 37 percent increased risk of early mortality, and those with cycle lengths of 40 days or more had a 34 percent increased risk.

Younger women had an increased risk for death from cancer but not from cardiovascular disease, while in older women the risk for cardiovascular disease death was higher.

“Importantly, these associations are not restricted to polycystic ovary syndrome or other gynecological or endocrine conditions that might result in irregular menstrual periods,” said the senior author, Dr. Jorge E. Chavarro, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard.

The study controlled for diet, physical exercise, anxiety, depression, and age at menarche or menopause.

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Irregular periods linked to a greater risk of an early death

A team of mostly US-based researchers found that women who reported always having irregular menstrual cycles experienced higher mortality rates than women who reported very regular cycles in the same age ranges. The study took into account other potentially influential factors, such as age, weight, lifestyle, contraceptives and family medical history.

The study assessed 79,505 women with no history of cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes. The women reported the usual length and regularity of their menstrual cycles at three different points: between the ages of 14 to 17, 18 to 22, and 29 to 46 years. The researchers kept track of their health over a 24-year period.

“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,” Dr. Jacqueline Maybin, a senior research fellow and consultant gynecologist at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, told the Science Media Centre in London.

“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,” said Maybin, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Irregular and long menstrual cycles have been associated with a higher risk of major chronic diseases including ovarian cancer, coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and mental health problems, the study said.

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In particular, the research, which published in the BMJ medical journal Wednesday, found that women who reported that their usual cycle length was 40 days or more at ages 18 to 22 years and 29 to 46 years were more likely to die prematurely — defined as before the age of 70 — than women who reported a usual cycle length of 26 to 31 days in the same age ranges.

The links were strongest for deaths related to cardiovascular disease than for cancer or death from other causes.

The authors were from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, Michigan State University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China.

No cause for alarm

Experts said that women who experience irregular or long menstrual cycles shouldn’t be alarmed by the findings of the study. Maybin said it’s important to remember that irregular menstruation is likely a symptom, not a diagnosis.

“A specific underlying cause of irregular menstruation may increase the risk of premature death, rather than the irregular bleeding, per se. 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,” she said.

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The study was observational and can only establish a correlation, not a causal link, between an irregular or long menstrual cycle and premature death. Other unmeasured factors could have influenced the results.

Maybin noted that the participants in