By Robert Preidt
WEDNESDAY, Jan. 28, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Extensive exposure to common chemicals appears to be linked to an earlier start of menopause, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that menopause typically begins two to four years earlier in women whose bodies have high levels of certain chemicals found in household items, personal care products, plastics and the environment, compared to women with lower levels of the chemicals.
The investigators identified 15 chemicals -- nine (now banned) PCBs, three pesticides, two forms of plastics chemicals called phthalates, and the toxin furan -- that were significantly associated with an earlier start of menopause and that may have harmful effects on ovarian function.
"Earlier menopause can alter the quality of a woman's life and has profound implications for fertility, health and our society," senior study author Dr. Amber Cooper, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a university news release.
"Understanding how the environment affects health is complex," she added. "This study doesn't prove causation, but the associations raise a red flag and support the need for future research."
In the study, Cooper's team analyzed blood and urine samples from more than 1,400 menopausal women, averaging 61 years of age, to determine their exposure to 111 mostly man-made chemicals.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) have been banned in the United States since 1979, but can be found in items made before that time. Furans are by-products of industrial combustion, and phthalates are found in plastics, many household items, drugs and personal care products such as lotions, perfumes, makeup, nail polish, liquid soap and hair spray.
Cooper said the study's findings could have implications for women's health.
"Chemicals linked to earlier menopause may lead to an early decline in ovarian function, and our results suggest we as a society should be concerned," she said.
Along with reducing fertility, a decline in ovarian function can lead to earlier development of heart disease, osteoporosis and other health problems, the researchers said. Prior research has also linked the chemicals with some cancers, early puberty and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome refers to a group of health conditions occurring together that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
"Many of these chemical exposures are beyond our control because they are in the soil, water and air," Cooper said. "But we can educate ourselves about our day-to-day chemical exposures and become more aware of the plastics and other household products we use."
For example, she suggested that people microwave food in glass or paper containers instead of in plastic, and learn more about the ingredients in their cosmetics, personal-care products and food packaging.
Even though many of the chemicals identified in the study are banned in the United States because of health risks, they are still produced in other countries and are common in the environment, Cooper added.
Two other experts say the findings reinforce what endocrinologists had long suspected.
"This important study strengthens the thinking that endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect ovarian function," said Dr. Spyros Mezitis, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"Prior research has shown an association with metabolic defects and this research becomes an issue to discuss with patients requesting fertility treatment," he said.
Dr. Jill Rabin is co-chief of the division of ambulatory care in Women's Health Programs at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y. She called the study "important," because "earlier menopause can impact on a woman's quality of life (hot flashes, mood and memory changes) and quantity of life (osteoporosis, fractures, heart disease)."
Both experts called for further research to clarify just how and how much exposure to the chemicals listed in the study might impact people's health.
The study was published online Jan. 28 in the journal PLoS One.