Anthropology & Aging Quarterly Volume 34, issue 3 (September 2013) pp.61-86

Postmenopausal Health and Disease from the Perspective of Evolutionary Medicine

Andrew W. Froehle

Department of Community Health, Boonshoft School of Medicine Wright State University

Download PDF version here: AAQ34(3)FROEHLE

Abstract

Menopause normally occurs between 45-55 years of age, marks the end of a woman’s reproductive lifespan, and is accompanied by a reduction in estrogen that has substantial physiological effects. The standard medical view is that these changes underlie high postmenopausal disease rates, defining menopause as an estrogen deficiency condition needing treatment. This view stems from the idea that extended postmenopausal longevity is a consequence of recent technological developments, such that women now outlive their evolutionarily-programmed physiological functional lifespan.Increasingly, however, researchers employing an evolutionary medicine framework have used data from comparative demography, comparative biology, and human behavioral ecology to challenge the mainstream medical view. Instead, these data suggest that a two-decade human postmenopausal lifespan is an evolved, species-typical trait that distinguishes humans from other primates, and has deep roots in our evolutionary past. This view rejects the inevitability of high rates of postmenopausal disease and the concept of menopause as pathology. Rather, high postmenopausal disease risk likely stems from specific lifestyle differences between industrialized societies and foraging societies of the type that dominated human evolutionary history. Women in industrialized societies tend to have higher estrogen levels during premenopausal life, and experience a greater reduction in estrogen across menopause than do women living in foraging societies, with potentially important physiological consequences. The anthropological approach to understanding postmenopausal disease risk reframes the postmenopausal lifespan as an integral period in the human life cycle, and offers alternative avenues for disease prevention by highlighting the importance of lifestyle effects on health.

Keywords: menopause, estrogen, evolution, human lifespan, aging

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