Failure to have a baby could be a sign of fundamental ill health in women and indicate a greater risk of early death, according to a major new study.
In the first analysis of its kind, researchers discovered infertile women have a 10 per cent higher chance of dying prematurely than those able to conceive and are 45 per cent more likely to die from breast cancer.
Experts say the findings indicate that infertility is a symptom of underlying medical problems which go on to trigger serious disease in later life.
Presented at the annual congress of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) in San Antonio, the results have prompted calls for women who struggle to conceive to be screened for certain cancers.
While it is not known for sure what links infertility and early mortality, the stark association with breast cancer, plus a 70 per cent increased risk of death from diabetes, points strongly towards hormone-related disorders.
Previous research has highlighted links between cancer and hormonal treatments to aid fertility.
However, this is the first of its size and nature to reveal the association between fundamental difficulty conceiving and premature death.
The study followed more than 78,000 women for 13 years, 14 per cent of whom reported infertility, an inability to conceive for one year or more.
Even though the incidence of diabetes was similar in fertile and infertile women, infertile women experienced an increased risk of death from endocrine-related diseases, including diabetes and breast cancer.
Infertility was not, however, was not linked to increased rates of ovarian or uterine cancers. “Associations between infertility and medical disease have been noted in the male population, the relationship between a woman’s fertility and her overall health has not been as robustly examined,” said Dr Natalie Stentz, from the University of Pennsylvania, who led the research.
“The study highlights the fact that a history of infertility is indeed related to women’s lifelong health and opens potential opportunities for screening or preventative management for infertile women.”
She added: “One of the things we do know is that having a baby at some point in a woman’s life is protective for health.
“When you look at studies of women who have never borne children, they are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and several malignancies.
“There is certainly a rejuvenation hypothesis that just by becoming pregnant a woman may be at lower risk of malignancies and long-term disease.”
Currently around one in eight women in the UK develop breast cancer at some point in their life.
Across all forms of breast cancer, around 85 per cent of women survive for at least five years after diagnosis and 77 per cent 10 years.
Early detection, which can be achieved through pro-active screening for groups known to be at particular risk, significantly improves survival chances.
Other than genetic testing, difficulty having a baby could be one of the best early markers for future cancer.
Dr Richard Paulson, ASRM President, said: “This is an intriguing and potentially very important study.
“More work is clearly needed to help us understand if, in some patients, there might be an underlying medical problem that presents as infertility during the reproductive years and then contributes to endocrine-related disease later in life.
“We also need to investigate if infertility treatments can counter some of this increased risk.”