Premature ovarian failure (POF) is a devastating diagnosis for the 1% of women it affects. In medical-speak, it’s a gynecological endocrine disease characterized by the exhaustion of ovarian follicles before the age of 40. In normal person-speak, it’s when your ovaries decide to throw in the towel and simply stop producing eggs.
Women with this disease have a very low chance of ever having biological children, even with the help of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). This is why, after my diagnosis at 34 — including three failed IVF attempts — we’re currently preparing to use donor eggs from my friend Marie. But how did I happen to win this infertility lottery in the first place? In other words, what actually causes premature ovarian failure?
The short answer is that medical professionals usually have no idea. The long answer is that there are a number of possible causes for the disease*. These include (but are not limited to):
Genetic disorders: Chromosomal defects from certain genetic disorders can cause POF. Examples include Fragile-X syndrome, where a woman’s X chromosomes are fragile and break, and Turner’s syndrome, where the second X chromosome is partially or completely missing. (Fragile-X syndrome is also one of the diseases that they screen for in potential egg donors.)
Cancer treatments: Common cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy can damage the genetic material in cells, causing POF in cancer survivors. POF is already a terrible thing to face on its own, much less after battling cancer. If there’s any kernel of goodness hidden in there, it’s that this particular cause of POF is becoming more common as cancer survival rates increase.
Psychological stress: Studies have shown that psychological stress, like experiencing a trauma or chronic anxiety, can cause changes in reproductive endocrinology. This cause is difficult to identify if you’re trying to self-diagnose, particularly because POF itself can also cause anxiety, leading to a chicken-or-egg scenario where it’s difficult to tell what came first.
Autoimmune disease: In a small minority of cases, a woman may have an autoimmune disease that produces antibodies against her ovarian tissue. This can harm the follicle and permanently damage the eggs contained within. It’s not known what triggers such an immune response, but exposure to a virus is one possibility.
How often is the cause identified?
While the issues listed above are known to cause POF, the truth is that the vast majority of cases (90%) are idiopathic, which is a fancy way of saying that we have no freaking clue what causes it. This is also the case for me. It is estimated that 40% of cases are genetic, and with my mother’s history of Hashimoto’s (an autoimmune disease), and my grandmother’s thyroid issues (plus my recent hypothyroid diagnosis), I wonder if there isn’t some connection there. But while I can speculate all I want (and believe me — I do), I have also resigned myself to the fact that I will likely never know.
*Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that while I am a doctor, I’m not one of the medical variety. The information here comes from personal experience and hours of sleepless googling.