Background: The human female reproductive lifespan is regulated by the dynamics of ovarian function, which in turn is influenced by several factors: from the basic molecular biological mechanisms governing folliculogenesis, to environmental and lifestyle factors affecting the ovarian reserve between conception and menopause. From a broader point of view, global and regional demographic trends play an additional important role in shaping the female reproductive lifespan, and finally, influences on an evolutionary scale have led to the reproductive senescence that precedes somatic senescence in humans.
Objective and rationale: The narrative review covers reproductive medicine, by integrating the molecular mechanisms of ovarian function and aging with short-term demographic and long-term evolutionary trends.
Search methods: PubMed and Google Scholar searches were performed with relevant keywords (menopause, folliculogenesis, reproductive aging, reproductive lifespan and life history theory). The reviewed articles and their references were restricted to those written in English.
Outcomes: We discuss and summarize the rapidly accumulating information from large-scale population-based and single-reproductive-cell genomic studies, their constraints and advantages in the context of female reproductive aging as well as their possible evolutionary significance on the life history trajectory from foetal-stage folliculogenesis until cessation of ovarian function in menopause. The relevant environmental and lifestyle factors and demographic trends are also discussed in the framework of predominant evolutionary hypotheses explaining the origin and maintenance of menopause.
Wider implications: The high speed at which new data are generated has so far raised more questions than it has provided solid answers and has been paralleled by a lack of satisfactory interpretations of the findings in the context of human life history theory. Therefore, the recent flood of data could offer an unprecedented tool for future research to possibly confirm or rewrite human evolutionary reproductive history, at the same time providing novel grounds for patient counselling and family planning strategies.