Predicting Menopause


July 1, 2010

Technology Thursday

Would you want to know when you’re likely to reach menopause? The health blog Checkup at the Washington Post reports that a small study suggests a simple blood test might reveal that information, within some margin of error. It strikes me that this research is very preliminary and may or may turn out to be useful or accurate in the end. But the prospect of such a test spurred a bit of discussion around the web.

For myself, I tend to think that more data & information is good. But I have a scientific background, a basic knowledge of statistics, and am not particularly intimidated by medical jargon. When I was pregnant people asked me if I was going to find out the sex of the baby. Of course! I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t, frankly. Whenever you find out, it’s a surprise, so why, I wondered, does the location of the baby when you find out matter? Now, I also know that sometimes they get it wrong, and so at every ultrasound I would double- and triple-check, “Still a boy? Still a boy?” But oh yes, I wanted that information. Whenever I get blood test results back from an annual physical and the doctor says, “normal” I always ask, “no, what was the number?” And, while I work very hard not to be obnoxious about it, I am always desperate for any scraps of information my kid’s teachers can share about his day when I pick him up at the end of the day. Often we end up talking about poop. Or snot. But, you know, it’s still information!

So yeah, if there were a reliable blood test that could predict when I was likely to start, or end, or be in the middle of menopause, I’d want to know. I’m done making babies, so it’s not for family planning purposes. I just … want to know. Maybe I’d like to plan an exotic vacation a year or two before, so that I can travel comfortably without hot flashes. Maybe I have a medical condition that would be alleviated by menopause (I do) and knowing when menopause is likely to happen would affect the likelihood that I’d resort to surgical options. Or maybe, I just want to know.

Over at re:Cycling, Heather Dillaway explores some of the complicated questions that are too often ignored when it comes to medical treatments or tests, especially for women. As well as a bunch of the implicit assumptions researchers make about the uses to which their work will be put. A snippet:

If we are truly to promote positive gender identities, a healthy view of both menstruation and menopause, a healthy view of women who either decide to have children or decide to be child-free, and the women who delay childbearing until their forties, the idea that this study predicts the “end” of fertility (read: the end of women’s delay of childbearing now that she can plan “well”) could be problematic, if it is couched in terms of “time left” and (essentially) time to system failure. Ultimately, does that mean that, if you don’t plan well and end up childless that it’s your fault? Does that mean that if you are still concentrating on your career with only 5 years left until age at menopause that you are not scheduling your time well? Does that mean when you get to the “end,” you should maybe think of yourself in a different way? And should you worry if your blood test says you only have a year left of regular menstruation?

Or what happens if you get to your appointed cessation time and you don’t stop menstruating? And do we really want to let women think that if they reach their appointed age at menopause, then they don’t need to use birth control anymore?