Most women know not to try and get pregnant after age 40 because of the variety of complications that can occur, but some women simply cannot give birth after that age. They have lost normal function in their ovaries, a condition known as premature ovarian failure.
Premature ovarian failure is not to be confused with premature menopause. During the latter, women cease having their periods and cannot become pregnant under any circumstance. Women with premature ovarian failure can still have periods, albeit irregular ones, for years, and there is still the possibility they may become pregnant.
The cause of premature ovarian failure is the loss of eggs. That loss may be a result of various factors, which include:
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy;
- Exposure to toxins such as pesticides, cigarette smoke and other chemicals;
- Chromosomal defects such as mosaic Turner's syndrome (in which a woman has only one normal X chromosome and 71an altered second X chromosome) or fragile X syndrome (in which the X chromosomes are fragile and break);
- Rarely, an autoimmune disease in which your body produces antibodies against your ovarian tissue; This may be triggered by a virus.
Risk factors which increase the likelihood of you experiencing premature ovarian failure include age between 35 and 40, having had multiple ovarian surgeries, and a family history of the condition.
Symptoms of premature ovarian failure include:
- Irregular or skipped periods, which might be present for years or develop after a pregnancy or after stopping birth control pills
- Difficulty conceiving
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Irritability or difficulty concentrating
- Decreased sexual desire
See your doctor if you miss three periods. You may be pregnant, under stress... or be suffering from premature ovarian failure. Your doctor will likely give you a pelvic exam and question you about your exposure to radiation and other toxic risk factors.
If you are diagnosed with premature ovarian failure, your doctor will likely recommend estrogen therapy. This will help to prevent osteoporosis and relieve hot flashes and other symptoms of estrogen deficiency. If you still have your uterus, your doctor may also prescribe progesterone to protect its lining from pre-cancerous changes of only taking estrogen.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment that can restore your fertility if that was lost as a result of premature ovarian failure.
Sources: The Mayo Clinic