The first time I went to a consultation with a fertility doctor, I was somewhat unprepared for the litany of questions that would follow. Everything from my menstrual cycle to my exercise routine to my lifestyle (Smoking? Nope. Alcohol? Yep. Too many Diet Cokes? Check.) was fair game. One of the areas the doctor seemed to focus on most was my family’s medical history — particularly, my mother’s background.
Turns out that maternal age of menopause can be “pretty predictive” of whether one might experience early menopause oneself, says Dr. Spencer Richlin of Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut. “Whenever we see a new patient, one of the questions we always ask is when her mom went into menopause,” says Richlin. “The average age of menopause is about 51, so if someone’s mom went into menopause in her 40s, that does pose a risk for that patient to go into menopause earlier.”
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Certain reproductive issues such as endometriosis can also be hereditary. Richlin says that whenever he sees a patient present with classic endo symptoms (such as painful intercourse, painful periods or ultrasounds that show endometriomas), he always asks them to find out whether their mother or sister(s) struggled with endometriosis. “There is definitely a relationship with someone having endo and a family member having it also,” says Richlin.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome is another possible hereditary disease, but the relationship isn’t quite as clear-cut. Irregular cycles and excessive hair growth are the most common signs, and if one’s mother struggled with PCOS, Richlin says she “probably has a disposition to it.”
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Though knowing your mom’s medical history may not help with prevention, it can provide crucial answers when dealing with unexplained infertility. Being in the know can also help women in the pre- or early trying to conceive stages keep what Richlin calls “an eye to the future.” And he’s right — instead of waiting until I was sitting in a fertility doctor’s office, it would have served me a lot better to sit down with my mom and learn about her reproductive past as soon as my husband and I got married (which had been over two years before).
“When thinking about reproduction, most people either don’t know or are embarrassed or uncomfortable to ask about their family medical history,” says Richlin. “I always advise that patients ask the following questions: When did you start trying? How long did it take to become pregnant? When did you go into menopause? Did you have regular cycles? Take all that information, and when you go see your OB-GYN or RE, bring it to the table. Be proactive so that you don’t risk missing your window of reproduction.”
Thanks to a new test on the market, women may also be able to get an even deeper window into what Richlin calls their “reproductive potential” as it pertains to genetics. Via a simple blood test, Fertilome screens for genetic markers associated with common reproductive conditions (such as diminished ovarian reserve, PCOS and recurrent pregnancy loss).
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For those who do uncover potential issues when navigating one’s family medical history, Richlin encourages them to remember that a lot has changed in the field of reproduction since our mothers were trying to conceive. Though maternal medical history can provide a lot of helpful information, Richlin says, “Even if it took someone’s mom a while [to get pregnant] or they had miscarriages, we don’t dwell on it that much because we have the technology to help people get pregnant. We can do so much more now.”
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