Certain reproductive characteristics in females are key risk factors for metabolic dysfunction, potentially increasing the likelihood of developing diabetes and high cholesterol in later stages of life, a recent study suggests.

Metabolic dysfunction affects the normal processing and distribution of macronutrients in the body including proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

In people with metabolic disorders, a cluster of conditions occur together including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. These factors together raise their risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Researchers behind a recent study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that early age of first menstruation, irregular menstrual cycle, the development of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), high weight gain in pregnancy, abnormal blood sugar and lipid levels during pregnancy and the severity and timing of menopause symptoms are factors that could raise the risk of metabolic dysfunction in women.

"Our review provides insights into potential underlying causes and risk factors for poorer metabolic function," said lead author Amy R. Nichols from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Current evidence linking certain female reproductive traits to chronic metabolic health and disease suggests that screening for reproductive risk factors across the life course may be an initial step to aid prevention or treatment of chronic metabolic diseases."

The reproductive traits identified in the study may have certain common underlying mechanisms including genetic influences, hormonal fluctuations or body fat, according to the researchers.

"These risk factors may themselves be markers of future dysfunction or may be explained by shared underlying etiologies that promote long-term disease development. Disentangling underlying relationships and identifying potentially modifiable characteristics have an important bearing on therapeutic lifestyle modifications that could ease long-term metabolic burden," the researchers wrote.

By acknowledging the reproductive milestones as potential risk factors, researchers hope to take a significant step toward a better understanding of the development of metabolic dysfunction. However, future research is needed to understand these complex relationships.

"Disentangling the relationship between risk factors and metabolic dysfunction is challenging. Clinical evidence gathered in the health care setting across the female reproductive lifespan may be critical for patient education, implementing prevention strategies and staving off disease onset," said Harvard Medical School professor Emily Oken, a senior author of the study.

A similar study published recently found that girls who get periods before the age of 13 are at a heightened risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. The research also revealed that those who start menstruating before the age of 10 or younger are at heightened risk of having a stroke before the age of 65. Although the study did not explore the cause behind the heightened risk, researchers believe it has something to do with the increase in the duration of estrogen exposure in people with early menstruation.