“We are very excited about the potential applications of this work for optimizing health outcomes in Saskatchewan and abroad,”said Dr. Angela Baerwald, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “These studies would not have been possible without the support of the University of Saskatchewan, the federal government and international collaborators.”
Baerwald led a transdisciplinary research team that evaluated ovarian and uterine function as well as hormone production in women during the menopausal transition.
Women in two research groups were compared based on their age. Changes in ovarian and uterine structure were studied in association with changes in the production of hormones that regulate reproductive function.
“It has been known for a long time that women’s menstrual cycles become very irregular in the period leading up to menopause,” said Baerwald. “The length of the transition to menopause ranges from two to 10 years. During this time, 60 to 80 per cent of women experience unwanted symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats or changes in concentration and memory. Reduced fertility also occurs.”
The frequency and severity of vasomotor and cognitive symptoms can have a significant negative effect on quality of life. Hormonal fluctuations have been proposed to be the cause of these changes; however, the underlying mechanisms have never been well understood.
The team’s research demonstrated that as women age, the growth of follicles in the ovaries can become very erratic. Follicles may grow to abnormally large diameters and persist for longer than normal, often producing high levels of estrogen. The atypically large, estrogen-producing follicles were found to inhibit the growth of the corpus luteum, which produces progesterone that supports early pregnancy. From their findings, the team believes that decreased growth of the corpus luteum may be contributing to the increased risk of miscarriage women experience as they age. The results of this research, published in the journal Menopause, are available online today.
Baerwald added that the team’s findings highlight the importance of developing centres of excellence in women’s health in Saskatchewan, where state-of-the-art research can be conducted and then directly applied to provide the best clinical care possible.
“We plan to apply for funding to conduct larger scale studies to better understand the mechanisms underlying unwanted symptoms, reduced fertility, and increased risks for ovarian and uterine cancers as women age’” she added. “Continued knowledge in this area will lead to safe and effective treatment options, thereby improving the quality of life of women and their families, while at the same time training the next generation of clinical scientists.”
The research was funded by the Canada Foundation for Women’s Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Medical Research Council of Australia, and the University of Saskatchewan.
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