Regular Sex Linked to Delay in Menopause—Even If It's Not With Another Person

Regularly having sex has been linked to women reaching the menopause later in a study. Participants who were sexually active weekly had a 28 percent lower chance of naturally entering this stage of their lives, compared with those who had some form of sex once a month or less.

The research involved 2,936 women in the U.S. who were aged between 42 and 52 at the start of the study, and hadn't yet experienced the menopause—when a woman's periods stop permanently and she can no longer get pregnant. They told the authors of the paper presented in the journal Royal Society Open Science how often they had engaged in a sexual activity over in the past six months. That included sexual touching or caressing, oral sex, sexual intercourse and masturbation, which the team believes likely signal to the woman's body that she is engaging in behaviors that could lead her to get pregnant.

At the start of the study, 78 percent of women were married or in a relationship, and 68 percent lived with a partner. A total of 64 percent had sex once a week.

The team said their work also debunked the hypothesis that being exposed to a male partner's pheromones may affect the timing of the menopause. In fact, they said "there is no conclusive evidence either that humans produce pheromones, or that they are capable of detecting them."

In contrast to previous studies, the team didn't find that being married was linked with the onset of the menopause, likely because of the methods used to collect such information in the past.

The timing of a woman's menopause largely comes down to genetics, the authors explained. But half of the variance is tied to other influences, including lifestyle factors such as smoking and how many eggs she is born with.

Past research suggests married women become menopausal later than unmarried or divorced women, leading the researchers to ask what part their sexual habits had to play. The team hypothesized that the body calculates the chances of becoming pregnant. From an evolutionary standpoint, it would be wasteful to spend energy on ovulating if the woman is not sexually active. If a woman is infrequently or never having sex, the body will not be receiving signals that a pregnancy could soon happen, the team suggested. This is known as the Grandmother Hypothesis, or that the menopause evolved in humans to reduce reproductive conflict between different generations of females, and so women could invest time in raising their grandchildren.

The researchers said some women may have less sex because of the symptoms of the menopause, including vaginal dryness and discomfort, and they adjusted for this when analyzing the data.

While they said they couldn't prove causation, the authors wrote "we hypothesize that this relationship is the result of an adaptive trade-off relative to the likelihood of pregnancy when approaching the menopause.

"Of course, the menopause is an inevitability for women, and there is no behavioral intervention that will prevent reproductive cessation; nonetheless, these results are an initial indication that menopause timing may be adaptive in response to sexual behavior," they said.

Study author Megan Arnot, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of College London Department of Anthropology, told Newsweek the team wasn't expecting the link between sex and age of menopause to stretch further than penetrative sex, "suggesting that it is the mechanism of sex that might influence menopause timing."

Arnot stressed: "We don't completely understand the mechanism or direction of causation—so we don't want to suggest that any behaviors will completely slow down the arrival of the menopause. Not to mention, the relationship between sex and menopause is highly complicated."

She added: "We are only just beginning to understand how lifestyle associated with the menopause, and this is adding to the ever-growing body of literature."

Elisabeth K. Bjelland, a researcher at Norway's Akershus University Hospital department of obstetrics and gynecology who did not work on the paper, told Newsweek she was "not quite convinced" by the team's hypothesis.

"The findings could suggest that being sexually active at least once a week delays natural menopause, but the estimated association was rather weak," she said, adding there were several important limitations in the study design.

Bjelland said: "Can regular sexual activity really delay menopause? In my opinion, this interesting question cannot be answered by the data presented in this study. I would recommend sexually inactive women in their forties not to worry for menopause to occur earlier than expected.

"However, I do believe that regular sexual activity has numerous positive effects on mental and physical health and well-being for all humans, and being a woman in or close to menopause is no exception."

This article has been updated with comment from Elisabeth K. Bjelland.

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