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Why Do Humans Survive Menopause?

Updated: Feb 11

Usually the phrase 'surviving menopause' refers to coping with assorted symptoms. I mean it more literally.

Here's a fun menopause fact: most animals don't live much past menopause. Not the way humans do.

Science has found only two other species that follow a similar pattern of "infertile longevity" - and they are both whales!

If you are a human or a killer whale, you are likely to have your last chance of reproduction in your thirties, possibly your early forties. But then - if you can avoid car accidents and harpoons - you might live to your eighties and beyond.

The third member of the small but mighty survival club is the short-finned pilot whale.

It's worth considering, though, that despite all our post-reproductive spare time, we haven't quite managed to research everything yet. So the club probably has some unidentified members.

The Usual Process

Most animals grow to maturity, reproduce as much as they are able, and then die. Some go through their version of menopause, some don't make it that far. For a great many, we don't know that level of detail! We just know that there aren't many elderly animals living beyond their reproductive years.

Lab rats and various primates have been observed to approach menopause much the way we human animals do - their egg numbers reduce, and their fertility cycle and hormone production becomes less and less reliable. (Here's a Menopause in Non-human Primates study for research geeks. It's not light reading.)

The difference between those animals and humans is that their natural lifespan ends quite soon after they lose fertility.

Ours does not, and it's not just because of our modern medicine and healthcare. There are multiple hunter-gatherer societies where the female elders are living proof of that. We haven't had modern medicine all that long, in the greater scheme of things. Yet history suggests centuries of women long outliving their childbearing years.

Why are Whales and Humans Different?

A likely explanation is a theory that dates back to 1966 - long before we had data on whales. Older females, it suggests, are better able to support their existing children and grandchildren if they are no longer reproducing.

Data from whales definitely backs this up. Researchers have analysed information from the Southern Resident Killer Whale Orca Survey (40 years of information-gathering) and found that females who are no longer reproducing provide significant survival benefits to their sons and daughters. If one of these female dies, the risk of her adult son dying within a year is up to 8 times greater than if she was still there. It's slightly different for daughters - they only have a 2.7 - fold increased risk of death within a year.

It's likely that a group's wellbeing - whether they are human or orca - is improved by the wisdom and help of the older females. And although it might seem that less of the available females reproducing = less surviving offspring, this isn't necessarily the case.

The alternative is that more reproducing females = more competition for quality mates, and for the resources to feed and raise the babies.

If you are an Orca, it seems you survive menopause so that, amoungst other things, you can lead your grandchildren to the elusive and unpredictable salmon even when fish are scarce.

If you are a human you are 'blessed' with a great big doubting, questioning brain. It might not let you see your purpose so clearly.

But purpose is there.

Humans outlive reproduction because we have far more to offer than eggs.

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