As a woman reaches her 40s, hormone levels change and start to drop.
The end result is menopause, which is defined as 12 consecutive months without menstruation.
Menopause is often accompanied by loss of libido, hot flashes, night sweats, and/or other unwanted symptoms.
In the United States, the average age of menopause for white women is 51.5 years — it’s slightly earlier for Hispanic and African-American women and slightly later for East Asian women.
The primary factors affecting a woman’s age at meonpause are her mother's age at menopause and smoking, which speeds the onset of menopause.
You may be surprised to learn that the age of menopause is affected neither by a woman’s age at first menstruation — nor by whether she was ever pregnant, breast-fed, or used hormonal birth control.
Aside from undesirable effects — no small matters in themselves — why does the age of menopause matter?
While late menopause is associated with higher risks for breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers, it’s also linked to lower risks for heart failure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and longer lifespans.
Conversely, early menopause has been linked to higher risks for heart failure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. (Early menopause may reduce the risk for the common heart rhythm disturbance known as Afib.)
While hormone replacement therapy can delay its undesirable symptoms, there’s been no proven way to change the natural age of menopause.
However, the findings from a new study suggest that food choices may help delay menopause — if that's what a woman wants to attempt.
Delay menopause with diet?
The new study comes from Britain’s University of Leeds, where researchers analyzed data from the UK Women’s Cohort Study (Dunneram Y et al. 2018).
It involved 35,372 women from England, Scotland, and Wales, aged 35 to 69, who completed diet surveys — and whose weight, physical activity, reproductive history, menopausal status, and use of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) was known.
The British team were interested in women who’d experienced menopause during the four years following the start of the study who were also between the ages of 40 and 65 — and 914 women met those criteria.
The scientists then compared the women’s characteristics with their age at the onset of menopause.
After adjusting the results to account for other factors known to affect the age of menopause, the analysis produced these associations:
As the researchers wrote, “Our results suggest that some food groups (oily fish, fresh legumes, refined pasta and rice) and specific nutrients are individually predictive of age at natural menopause.”
Lead author Yashvee Dunneram expressed caution about their findings, and hope for more research: “This is an observational study, and we can’t advise women on what to eat or not eat based on our findings. But it would be good if it could prompt more studies ...”.
Other population studies on diet and the age of menopause
Two years ago, the authors of a similarly large epidemiological study from China published somewhat similar conclusions (Dorjgochoo T et al. 2016):
Also in 2016, the authors of a 12.5-year Australian study involving 1,146 women associated later menopause with higher intakes of fruit and beta-cryptoxanthin — an antioxidant that abounds in red-yellow-orange fruits and vegetables (Pearce K et al. 2016)
Thirteen years ago, the authors of a much smaller German epidemiological study (involving 4,807 women) published findings that resemble but differ somewhat from those presented in the recent British report (Nagel G et al. 2005):
Finally, the authors of a small Japanese epidemiological study published 18 years ago (involving 1,130 women aged 35-54) linked later menopause to higher intakes of green and yellow vegetables — but not with higher intakes of the carotenes that produce red and yellow colors in vegetables and fruits (Nagata C et al. 2000).
Why would diet affect the age of menopause?
The British researchers speculated on the reasons why diets higher in fish and legumes would delay menopause.
One explanation they proposed was the proven roles that fatty fish and legumes play in fighting free radicals and inflammation.
Egg maturation and release are adversely affected by excessive amounts of free radicals in the body.
So, it makes sense that higher intakes of legumes — which contain antioxidants — may help preserve menstruation.
And the omega-3 fatty acids that abound only in fatty fish (DHA and EPA) play critical roles in ending unnecessary inflammation and may also boost the body’s “antioxidant capacity”.
On the other hand, the authors of the British study noted that diets high in refined carbs boost the risk of insulin resistance, which can interfere with sex hormone activity and boost estrogen levels — effects that might increase the number of menstrual cycles and deplete egg supply faster.
Vegetarians consume lots of antioxidants, but also eat a lot more fiber and less animal fat — dietary patterns linked to low estrogen levels. So, vegetarian diets may also alter the timing of menopause.
In other words, limiting foods that promote chronic inflammation (refined carbs and processed foods) and replacing them with a Mediterranean-style diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and wild fish — may help restore and maintain hormone production, thereby delaying menopause.
In addition to increasing your intake of fish and legumes, consider adding other anti-inflammatory foods, including:
Diets rich in these foods — such as Mediterranean-style diets — bring broad, well documented health benefits.
And, judging by the results of the British study and its predecessors, such diets may also help delay menopause.