Researchers are looking at the problem in a whole new way.
It's common knowledge that a woman's fertility declines as she ages, but while a lot of emphasis has been placed on diminished egg quality, new research suggests that age-related infertility may have more to do with changes to the ovaries themselves.
According to a Northwestern University study, decreased healthy egg production may be related to an increase in scarring and inflammation in the ovaries as we age. Researchers studied mice to draw their conclusion, making this the first study to show the relationship between ovarian aging and the quality of eggs produced.
A release for the study pointed out that when it comes to reproductive research, most studies focus on the eggs themselves as researchers hope to gain an understanding of why the eggs dwindle in number and quality as women age—but this study looked at the environment in which the eggs develop, which is called the ovarian stroma.
In looking at older mice, researchers noted that there were more instances of fibrosis (the thickening and scarring of connective tissue) in the ovaries when compared to those of younger mice. Also, only the older mice had a specific type of immune cell which has previously been associated with inflammation.
"Under the microscope, eggs from reproductively young and old animals may look identical, but the environment in which they are growing is completely different," the study's lead author, Francesca Duncan, executive director of the Center for Reproductive Science at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said. "Ovaries from reproductively old mice are fibrotic and inflamed. There is no way this environment won't impact the eggs growing in it, and it very likely contributes to their decrease in quality."
Duncan and her team are hoping that their findings can be used to develop therapies to improve ovarian environment as we age. This could spell great news for women who want to have children later in life.