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Missed Periods Could Lead to Osteoporosis Later in Life

If you miss your period often, see your doctor

TUESDAY, June 11, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you're a woman who often skips periods, you should get checked out by a doctor.

Irregular menstrual cycles may be a warning sign of potential bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis later in life, new research says.

Most women think of their ovaries as being primarily for fertility, says Dr. Lawrence Nelson, a research gynecologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and senior author of the new study.

In fact, the ovaries are also crucial for the production of hormones, including estrogen and progesterone, which help to build and maintain strong bones.

If you don't get your period regularly, it could mean your ovaries aren't providing enough of these hormones, Nelson says.

"In the long run, you can have serious problems with bone density," he adds.

Nelson and his colleagues surveyed 48 women with premature ovarian failure, which occurs when the ovaries stop producing eggs and reproductive hormones well in advance of middle age -- the typical age range for menopause.

The study appeared in a recent issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Missed periods, called amenorrhea, are one symptom of ovarian failure. Ninety-two percent of the women in the study reported that a change in their menstrual cycle was the first symptom they experienced -- however, few recognized missed periods as an important health issue.

Even worse, many doctors don't see it as serious, says Nelson. More than half of the women in the study reported seeing at least three health-care providers before they received a diagnosis of premature ovarian failure.

It took more than five years for one-fourth of the women to be diagnosed.

"Every woman when they see their doctor should be asked when they got their last period and is it regular," Nelson says.

Doctors want woman to think of regular periods in a new way, like a "vital sign" -- as crucial to good health as blood pressure and temperature.

"A regular menstrual cycle is a sign that your ovaries are functioning normally and making the hormones you need," Nelson adds.

Dr. Justina Trott, director of the Women's Health Services Family Care and Counseling Center in Santa Fe, says women should think about their bones well before middle age.

"A lot of people focus on osteoporosis as a middle-aged or post-menopause disease," Trott says. "The truth is a lot of the thin bones we see are the result of not enough bone buildup when the women are younger."

Women of all ages can help build and maintain bone density by exercising and consuming sufficient calcium, Trott says.

But many young women have eating disorders that can lead to poor nutrition and irregular cycles. Excessive stress can also cause missed periods.

If you're a young woman who has missed three periods this year, go see your doctor and request a test for premature ovarian failure, the experts say.

The blood test to detect ovarian failure measures the level of a hormone called follicle stimulating hormone. Treatment for premature ovarian failure includes hormone replacement therapy to make up for the lack of estrogen and progesterone.

About 1 percent of women have ovarian failure by age 40.

But Nelson does note, "We don't want to push the panic button. Most women who miss three or more periods don't have ovarian failure."

What To Do

Teens can read more about their menstrual cycle at Kidshealth.org. Women can visit the Feminist Women's Health Center.

SOURCES: Lawrence Nelson, M.D., research gynecologist for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, Md.; Justina Trott, M.D., director of Women's Health Services Family Care and Counseling Center, Santa Fe, N.M.; May 2002 Obstetrics and Gynecology
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