New research into the genetics of early menopause may lead to a simple test that could allow women to make decisions sooner about having children, according to a British study published Monday.
One in 20 women starts the menopause before the age of 46 - which can affect chances of conceiving as early as a decade beforehand.
The study, by scientists from the University of Exeter and the Institute of Cancer Research, found that four genes working in combination appear to significantly raise the risk of early menopause.
The findings could eventually help identify women at greater risk, allowing them to make earlier decisions about starting a family.
Menopause usually occurs when the number of remaining eggs in the ovary falls below around 1,000. But the factors which determine how quickly the egg reserve depletes are less well understood.
The research, published in Human Molecular Genetics, looked at 2,000 women who had experienced early menopause and a similar number who had entered the menopause at the normal age.
It found that the presence of each of the four genes appeared to have some influence on the timing of the menopause. When more than one of the genes was found in the woman's DNA, the effect was even more pronounced.
"It is estimated that a woman's ability to conceive decreases on average ten years before she starts the menopause," said Dr Anna Murray, who led the research.
"Therefore, those who are destined to have an early menopause and delay childbearing until their 30s are more likely to have problems conceiving.
"These findings are the first stage in developing an easy and relatively inexpensive genetic test which could help the one in 20 women who may be affected."
Susan Seenan of Britain's Infertility Network, which supports women who are infertile as early as their twenties as a result of early menopause, welcomed the findings.
"It's early days yet, but we would welcome any research that may help women to plan ahead and make earlier decisions about having children," she said.