Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service
Ask any woman what her child or grandchild adds to her life and you’ll get a bunch of answers: Joy. Excitement. Love. Spaghetti all over the floor. (Again.) Here’s one more possible answer: fewer hot flashes during menopause.
New research conducted by scientists at Indiana University and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that some menopausal women experienced fewer hot flashes and night sweats if they had children under age 13 at home.
While the study specifically focused on women who entered menopause because of a surgical procedure that removed their ovaries, the findings may translate to other menopausal women as well.
“There does seem to be a benefit of interacting with young children, particularly for these women who are undergoing rapid, surgical menopause,” said Dr. Tierney Lorenz, a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, who spearheaded the study.
The research was a reanalysis of data collected by Dr. Bonnie McGregor, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Fred Hutch, to investigate how a preventive surgery called bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy affects quality of life in women at high risk of ovarian cancer. Some women with family histories of ovarian cancer or genetic mutations that make them susceptible to this disease choose this surgery to reduce their risk. Because of the ovaries’ role in producing reproductive hormones, oophorectomy causes the rapid onset of menopause in premenopausal women.
An added benefit of the ‘love hormone’?
The study, published online in the journal Menopause on Sept. 15, wasn’t originally designed to examine the link between children and menopausal symptoms, so the authors don’t know exactly why this effect occurred. They did suggest one potential culprit for further investigation, however: oxytocin.
Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone,” is produced in the brain and involved in childbirth and mother-child attachment, among other roles. Studies have found that it raises mother rodents’ body temperature while they care for their young, possibly to help keep pups warm, and that oxytocin’s effects on body temperature vary depending on estrogen levels.
“This is among the first” of studies to suggest a potential link between oxytocin and these symptoms of menopause, said Lorenz. Oxytocin is chemically fragile and difficult to deliver to people in a way that has an effect on the brain, she said. “So despite there being tons of interest in the hormone, there’s actually very little [research] in humans.”
Other possible reasons for the results could be different patterns of physical activity, diet, alcohol and tobacco use and stress between mothers of younger versus older children, the authors wrote.
So does this mean that women facing menopause should start loitering around children as a way to keep their hot flashes under control? Hard to say, Lorenz said. But since there’s not really a downside to being around young children, it might be worth a try, she added.
“I would be willing, based on these findings, to say that it could not hurt to demand an extra day with your grandkids or to hang out with your friend’s kids just to see if it does help.”
This study included data from 117 women undergoing risk-reducing salpingo-oophorectomies at the University of Washington, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. All of the women had a family history of breast or ovarian cancer.
The goal of the original study, currently in review for publication, was to help answer a fundamental question that many women have before choosing this surgery, said McGregor: “How will I feel afterwards?”
The study will help physicians counsel their patients on what to expect from the surgery, she said; while there is high-quality data on how it affects cancer risk, there is little on its effects on cancer worries and quality of life.
At two weeks before the surgery and at two, six and 12 months afterward, participants filled out quality- of-life surveys that asked about their mental, physical and relationship health — including their experience of menopausal symptoms — and mailed them in to the research team.
“We got to watch what happens in real time,” McGregor said about her research design. “A lot of studies before [ours] had been retrospective. They’d asked women to remember how they felt before their surgery, and we know that’s not very accurate.”
The surveys also gathered demographic data, including age, race, relationship status and the number of children living at home in three age categories: under age 13, between 13 and 17, and age 18 and older. The surveys did not ask how much contact the women had with their children.
Women who were premenopausal prior to surgery were an average of about 42 years old, and more than two of every five of them had at least one child under 13 at home at the time. Women who’d already started or completed the menopause transition before surgery had an average age of about 52, and only about one of five had a young child at home.
The reanalysis led by Lorenz revealed that from the pre-surgery survey to the first survey after oophorectomy, the younger group of women reported a jump in the number of self-reported vasomotor symptoms — hot flashes and night sweats — as they went through rapid, surgical menopause: No surprise there.
However, within this group, those with young children at home reported fewer vasomotor symptoms before oophorectomy than their premenopausal counterparts with older or no children, and this difference held throughout most of the experiment, even after symptoms jumped after surgery. (At the third of the four time points, the difference between the two subsets of younger women was not statistically significant.)
The effect only occurred in younger, premenopausal women, not the older participants who had already started or completed the menopause transition by the time their ovaries were removed. Among these older women, those with young children at home actually experienced more vasomotor symptoms before and immediately after surgery than their counterparts without young children at home, although these differences disappeared in the second half of the study.
“This has probably more to do with the stress of having young kids at home, especially as an older woman,” Lorenz said about these results.
The grandmother question
This study came about after Lorenz and senior author Dr. Virginia Vitzthum, an Indiana University anthropologist and Kinsey Institute colleague, had an “armchair philosophy conversation” about the evolutionary puzzle of grandmothering: a “controversy in the anthropology literature,” Lorenz said.
Specifically, Lorenz and Vitzthum wanted to find out why women were biologically driven to spend time with their grandchildren.
“From an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t make sense why the institution of grandmothering should exist,” Lorenz said. “You’ve already produced your offspring, and it may make a little bit of sense to invest in your offspring’s offspring, but it’s not an immediate-enough effect.”
McGregor was Lorenz’s mentor during her psychology internship at the University of Washington, and the two of them had already collaborated on an analysis of McGregor’s dataset to learn about the factors affecting women’s sexual activity following a preventive salpingo-oophorectomy. Lorenz knew that this dataset had the potential to shed light on the anthropologists’ grandmothering puzzle as well.
“It’s expensive to gather these data, and these women took a lot of time to give us information and fill out surveys, so I like to honor that and get as much knowledge as we can out of it,” McGregor said.
While their results don’t solve this evolutionary puzzle for good, Lorenz said, “it certainly provides a mechanism by which grandmothering would be reinforced on an individual level.”
The researchers note that it’s difficult to know if the finding can translate more broadly because all of their participants were at a high risk of cancer and nearly all of them were white. Furthermore, surgical menopause is different than natural menopause — it happens much more rapidly and occurs in younger women.
Nevertheless, said Lorenz, “I do think it’s worth following up.” She and her colleagues at the Kinsey Institute are discussing potential avenues of research to learn more about the role of oxytocin in menopause symptoms and the hormone’s relationship to childcare.
And in the meantime, ladies, what the heck: Maybe that preschool down the road is looking for a new volunteer.
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Susan Keown, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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