Diseases and health problems associated with components of the female body that are critical with respects to the production and successful development of offspring pose a serious threat to modern women, in particular women who lead a western-type lifestyle. The fact that breast cancer, cervical cancer, and other similar conditions are a significant cause of mortality and morbidity in several parts of the world is hard to overlook and has triggered the medical community to search for the causes of reproductive-related disease, which in turn could lead to development of effective prevention and treatment programs.
Most of the focus has been on proximate causes. Ultimate causes, on the other hand, have received fairly little attention from the medical establishment, which is unfortunate, as an appreciation of the ultimate causes of disease is required to fully understand disease. If we don’t know or ignore what the ultimate causes of a particular disease are, we are liable to waste a lot of time, money, and resources as we look for proximate causes and solutions to the disease in question.
Why is the reproductive system of the modern female so prone to disease?
It’s often overlooked that the female reproductive system, just like all other bodily systems, is a product of Darwinian evolution. It was shaped over millions of years as a result of the demands that were placed upon it. Those female ancestors of ours who were equipped with a reproductive system that was in synch with their reproductive behavior were at an advantage in “the evolutionary race” as compared with women whose reproductive systems didn’t function as well, and as a result, beneficial traits were continually positively selected for.
One of the main problems we face today is that the reproductive pattern of most modern women differs markedly from that of their ancestors. Coupled with other forms of evolutionary mismatch, as well as the fact that the average life expectancy is markedly higher in many modern societies when compared with hunter-gatherer communities, this has greatly contributed to increasing the incidence of disorders of the reproductive system.
Reproduction, breastfeeding, and child-rearing have historically occupied much of women’s lives. In the modern day and age, however, many women delay reproduction in favor of other pursuits, only give birth to one or two children in total, and breastfeed for a limited amount of time. This behavior may be ideal with respect to the creation and advancement of a job-related career, but it’s certainly not ideal with respects to the health and functionality of one’s reproductive system, as highlighted by the quote below, which I pulled from a great newly published paper entitled Impact of reproductive evolutionary mismatch on women’s health and the need for action and research.
Efforts by the health and scientific community have focused on providing women with the means to control and regulate their fertility. We paid less attention to the reality of women achieving their reproductive revolution while burdened with a reproductive system that evolved to fit the life of our ancestor hunter-gatherers, where women were destined to spend most of their reproductive years pregnant or breastfeeding. This state of evolutionary mismatch impacts on women’s health as the reproductive system continues incessantly to work, producing a monthly ovum and exposing the reproductive organs to cyclic hormonal stimulation without the benefit of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Women have to cope with a life of menstrual cycles, decreased fecundity owing to reproductive ageing, and a higher risk of reproductive cancers, in addition to uterine fibroids, and endometriosis. (1)
What can we do about this problem?
The optimal solution to an evolutionary mismatch situation is to strategically adjust one’s environment and way of life. That’s not always possible or practical though. A lot of people are probably open to the idea of eating and exercising in a manner not so unlike that of their primal forebears; however, most modern women, in particular women living in industrialized nations, are likely going to be resistant to adopt the reproductive behaviors and pattern of hunter-gatherers.
That’s not to say that it’s highly infeasible to reduce the mismatch gap via behavioral change though. Some behaviors are easier to adopt than others. This is particularly true for practices related to breastfeeding. Much attention has been devoted to the beneficial effects that breastfeeding has on the growth, development, and immune maturation of children. Its effects on the lactating female, however, have received fairly little attention, which is unfortunate, seeing as they are quite significant, as highlighted by the quote below:
Although the modern woman cannot be expected to breastfeed a similar number of years as her ancestor, there is evidence that even short periods of breastfeeding will have a beneficial impact, not only on the infant and child but also on a woman’s health. It has been estimated that at the current low childbearing levels (2.5 children on average) in high-resource countries, if women breastfed each child for 6 months longer than they currently do, approximately 25 000 breast cancers would be prevented each year; if each child were breastfed for an additional 12 months, then approximately 50 000 cases might be prevented. (1)
At the very least, it’s important that women are made aware of the nature and impact of reproductive evolutionary mismatch, so that they have the option of modifying their behavior accordingly. I strongly suspect that more women would make better choices, for example related to breastfeeding, if they were aware of how their reproductive-related behaviors affect their health. Moreover, it’s extremely important that the medical community is aware of this information, as it is invaluable with respects to efforts related to understanding, preventing, and treating disorders of the breast, cervix, endometrium, and the like.
By examining how the female reproductive system was designed and functions and comparing the stimuli that were imposed on it by the woman of the past vs. the woman of the present, we can potentially locate the causes of reproductive-related disorders, which in turn may help us develop effective and prudent health policies and therapeutic solutions. Certain conventional medical interventions have shown promise; however, it’s important to recognize that it’s always going to be difficult to effectively address complex mismatch situations via the use of drugs.
P.S. If you want to read more about the nature and impact of reproductive evolutionary mismatch, as well as medical approaches that can help us deal with this type of mismatch, I recommend that you read the whole paper I’ve quoted from in this article. It can be downloaded here.