A Genetic Need for Menopause: Reflections and New Perspectives
Tradition has taught women to view menopause as the “beginning of the end”, the beginning of a decline in health, where they will have to handle the effects of illness, disability and dependency. Women have fought the effects of aging and menopause through botox injections, plastic surgery, and use in vitro fertilization and hormone replacement therapy to maintain the ability to reproduce and continue feeling young. Despite these efforts to maintain what we see as “valuable life”, genetic studies have revealed the potential for another purpose to the menopausal period in a woman’s life, the ability to grandparent and the evolutionary advantages of this. In this light, menopause should perhaps not be viewed as the “beginning of the end”, but rather the “end of the beginning”. In a proposed grandparent hypothesis, grandmothers increase the growth of infants by assisting in providing for food for nursing mothers and infants which ultimately accelerates infants’ growth, allowing for them to be weaned sooner, and thus allowing the female to reproduce more. Recent genetic literature suggests that menopause may offer the selection for alleles, specifically the CD33 allele, which may protect against cognitive decline in post-reproductive humans, allowing humans to grandparent. Without these alleles, cognitive decline in the post-reproductive population may decrease the ability of grandparents to provide food and contribute knowledge to their offspring, and deters resources to the care of the aged and demented, thus hindering their grandchildren’s reproductive success. This suggests that there is a genetic need for menopause, and serves as an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of thought from reversing menopause to viewing it as another important stage of a woman’s life, which genetics may have selected for in order to sustain the continuation of our species.