Reproductive aging in women (a physiological decline in the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis) is an infrequently investigated and poorly understood biological phenomenon. Although menstrual irregularity and anovulation are known to precede the menopause, normal women in their fifth decade experience a profound decrease in fertility while still experiencing regular menstrual cycles. To further our understanding of the physiological changes associated with reproductive aging, this study examined the spontaneous development and function of ovarian follicles in normal women, aged 40-45 yr. The subjects were women (n = 21), aged 40-45 yr, who had regular 25- to 35-day ovulatory menstrual cycles, were not infertile, had no medical problems, and met specific criteria for weight, diet, and exercise. The controls were normal women (n = 20), age 20-25 yr, who met the same criteria. The subjects were monitored with daily hormone measurements [LH, FSH, estradiol (E), progesterone (P), and inhibin] and pelvic sonograms from day 1 of their study cycle until the dominant ovarian follicle reached a mean diameter of 15 mm and/or a serum E level of 550 pmol/L or higher was attained. At that time, 10,000 U hCG were given, and a transvaginal sonographic follicle aspiration was performed 32 h later. The follicular fluid (FF) was collected, stored frozen at -70 C, and later analyzed for E, P, testosterone (T), androstenedione, inhibin, insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), and IGF-II. The number of cycle days to aspiration was lower (11.6 vs. 15.6 days; P <0.001) and the early follicular phase mean FSH and mean E levels were higher (9.3 vs. 6.6 mIU/mL and 305 vs. 160 pmol/L; P <0.01) in the older (O) group compared to the younger group. There was a strong trend toward higher FF mean E (2280 vs. 1931 nmol/L) and lower FF mean T (978 vs. 2361 pmol/L) levels in group O. The E/T ratio was significantly higher (5253 vs. 2408; P <0.03) in group O. In group O, the mean FF P levels were increased as well (25.1 vs. 18.8 μmol/L; P <0.01). The serum mean IGF-I (153 vs. 226 ng/mL; P <0.001) and FF mean IGF-I (113 vs. 158 ng/mL; P <0.02) levels were significantly decreased in group O. There were no differences between groups in serum or FF IGF-II or inhibin levels. Whether reproductive aging is an intrinsic ovarian process or the ovary is simply responding to exogenous influences, the ovary in general and its follicles in particular are the primary site of the effects of aging. Ovarian follicles in older ovulatory women have some unique features: 1) the follicles are the same size as those in younger women, but form more rapidly; 2) secretion of E and inhibin is not compromised; 3) the concentrations of steroids in the FF are indicative of a healthier follicle, i.e. increased P levels and higher estrogen to androgen ratio; and 4) serum and FF levels of IGF-I are decreased, but there are no differences in IGF-II levels.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism