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The Biological Clock: Perimenopause and Fertility

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Parenting trends have shifted quite considerably in the past 40 years. In 1970, the average age of first-time mothers giving birth was 21. According to National Vital Statistics Reports published in 2010, this number had jumped to 25 by 2007. Similarly, the average age of all mothers giving birth increased three years during the same time period.

Interestingly, many American women are choosing to start a family later in life. Many women choose to focus on their education, careers, travel and other goals before birthing their first child. The number of births to mothers in their 30s or 40s is at a higher rate in the U.S. than it has been since the 1960s.

But can waiting too long to start a family backfire? Absolutely. While women reportedly have given birth even after age 50, birth rates in older age groups are significantly lower than those for younger women, clearly due to onset of menopause. In fact, researchers have found that without fertility treatment, birth numbers for women 35 and over would be much lower.

I know what you’re thinking: “35 is so young!” And yes, in many ways, 35 has become the new 25. But when it comes to fertility, our biological clocks run on batteries that cannot be recharged.

Certainly menopause is not going to kick in at age 35. But it is possible to begin experiencing symptoms of perimenopause in your 30s. Perimenopause is the time period when your body shifts from having regular menstrual cycles toward the total cessation of ovulation and menstruation, or menopause. And while this usually begins to occur when women hit their 40s, perimenopause can arrive on your doorstep even earlier than that.

How do you know when you have begun perimenopause? Well, it’s not always clear-cut. These are some of the possible symptoms:

  1. Changes in menstruation. Because ovulation is less regular as you approach menopause, you may have shorter or longer periods, there may be more or less time between your cycles, and your flow may increase or decrease. According to the Mayo Clinic, early perimenopause is characterized by a change in the length of your menstrual cycle by more than seven days. You are in late perimenopause if you have missed two or more periods and waited 60 or more days between periods (and, of course, you are not pregnant).
  2. Hot flashes. These happen more frequently in late perimenopause and occur in about 65-75 percent of women.
  3. Vaginal dryness. A decrease in estrogen can lead to dryness. Secondary symptoms include painful intercourse and higher risk of vaginal infections.
  4. Decreased fertility.
  5. Ovulation is necessary to conceive a child, and once perimenopause sets in, ovulation becomes irregular and less predictable.

Of course, as long as you are ovulating, you are still able to conceive a child. However, with the onset of perimenopause conception becomes more difficult. Ovulation predictors and fertility treatment can help.

Plenty of women are able to conceive and have children at older ages, as evidenced by the statistics. Still, believing that a woman can choose to have a child even as she approaches her 40s might be a risky assumption. If having a family is a top priority, it is important to recognize that time may not always be on your side.



National Vital Statistics Reports

Mayo Clinic

Reviewed May 24,2011
Edited by Alison Stanton

Hillary Easom has two children, both born while she was in her 30s.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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