If a woman struggling with infertility undergoes in vitro fertilization (IVF), she has a single goal—to conceive a healthy baby. Now, new research has shown that the IVF process can serve an additional purpose by offering important clues about the woman’s future health.

With IVF, a woman takes fertility medication to stimulate her ovaries’ release of mature eggs so that one or more can be fertilized with sperm in a lab (“in vitro” is the Latin term for “within the glass”) and implanted in the uterus to create a pregnancy.

Because the process involves the retrieval of a woman’s eggs, researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark wanted to investigate the link between varying levels of egg collection in women and later-life health risks—especially for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and osteoporosis. Risk for both conditions has been shown to increase during menopause—the point at which the ovaries stop releasing eggs.

New research findings: To begin their investigation, the researchers reviewed the medical records of almost 20,000 women under age 37 who had a first cycle of IVF. (Women often undergo multiple cycles of IVF to achieve a successful pregnancy.)

During IVF, the more eggs a woman releases, the better her chances of creating a viable fertilized egg (embryo) in the lab to transfer to the uterus. A normal response to the hormonal stimulation that occurs during IVF is eight or more eggs, while five or fewer eggs is low and considered to be a sign of “early ovarian aging.” Unlike men, who can produce sperm well into their older age, women have a set number of follicles in their ovaries that can release eggs during ovulation.

In the study, which was presented at the 2020 meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, the researchers reviewed about six years of health records for the women who had undergone IVF to determine their rates of death or disease from any cause, along with reports of CVD, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Of the women studied, 1,234 produced five or fewer eggs (the “early ovarian aging” group), while 18,614 produced eight or more eggs (the “normal ovarian response” group). Among the key findings…

  • Women with early ovarian aging had a 26% greater risk of developing a chronic, age-related disease compared with the normal ovarian response group.
  • The most significant risks for women with early ovarian aging were a 39% higher risk for CVD and more than double the risk for osteoporosis.
  • The risk for cancer, other age-related diseases and death from any cause was not significantly different between the two groups.

Bottom line: A low response to ovarian stimulation should be a warning sign for doctors to provide counseling for such women, especially for CVD and osteoporosis, according to the researchers. This counseling would include lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, and perhaps hormone replacement therapy. If your response to ovarian stimulation was limited and your doctor hasn’t talked to you about this, speak up so you can begin taking steps to reduce your risk for future age-related health problems.

Source: Study titled “Response to Stimulation in IVF May Predict Longer-Term Health Risk” by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark and presented at the 2020 meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.