Fertility and Ovarian Function in High-Dose DES-Treated Tall Women

image of tall-girls
Back in the day, school photographers put the tall guys at the back in the middle, the shorter guys on the end. If you were really short, they put you on the end of the middle’ row with the plain Janes — note the gender symmetry. Middle of the front row was always reserved for the prettiest girls. My future wife and I – 1969.


Fertility and Ovarian Function in High-Dose Estrogen-Treated Tall Women, National Institutes of Health, NCBI PubMed PMID 21289262, 2011 Feb 2.
Full text: The Endocrine Society, dx.doi.org/10.1210/jc.2010-2244, February 02, 2011.

High-dose estrogen treatment to reduce final height of tall girls has been shown to interfere with fertility. Ovarian function has not been studied. We therefore evaluated fertility and ovarian function in tall women who did or did not receive such treatment in adolescence.

This was a retrospective cohort study of 413 tall women aged 23-48 yr, of whom 239 women had been treated. A separate group of 126 fertile, normoovulatory volunteers aged 22-47 yr served as controls.

Fertility was assessed in 285 tall women (157 treated, 128 untreated) who had attempted to conceive. After adjustment for age, treated women were at increased risk of experiencing subfertility [odds ratio (OR) 2.29, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.38-3.81] and receiving infertility treatments (OR 3.44, 95% CI 1.76-6.73). Moreover, fecundity was notably affected because treated women had significantly reduced odds of achieving at least one live birth (OR 0.26, 95% CI 0.13-0.52). Remarkably, duration of treatment was correlated with time to pregnancy (r = 0.23, P = 0.008). Ovarian function was assessed in 174 tall women (119 treated, 55 untreated). Thirty-nine women (23%) exhibited a hypergonadotropic profile. After adjusting for age category, treated women had significantly higher odds of being diagnosed with imminent ovarian failure (OR 2.83, 95% CI 1.04-7.68). Serum FSH levels in these women were significantly increased, whereas antral follicle counts and serum anti-Müllerian hormone levels were decreased.

High-dose estrogen-treated tall women are at risk of subfertility in later life. Their fecundity is significantly reduced. Treated women exhibit signs of accelerated ovarian aging with concomitant follicle pool depletion, which may be the basis of the observed subfertility.


We evaluated fertility and ovarian function in tall women who did or did not receive high-dose estrogen treatment in adolescence. Our results indicate that treated women experience more difficulties getting pregnant compared with untreated women and more often receive infertility treatments. We show for the first time that abnormal serum levels of hormones related to the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal axis, especially FSH, may be involved in the observed subfertility.

First we studied fertility of treated women, which was significantly reduced compared with untreated women. Fifty-six percent of treated women conceived their first pregnancy within 12 months of unprotected intercourse. As a consequence, 43% of treated women visited a doctor because of fertility problems and 28% required some form of infertility treatment. More importantly, we observed a significantly reduced chance of achieving a live birth. At the time of study almost one third of the treated women were suffering from involuntary childlessness for a median of 40 months. This is unexpected in light of earlier findings indicating only a slight reduction in the probability of eventually having a live birth. This may be explained by the fact that we studied fertility only in women who had attempted to conceive, which we believe better represents the women at risk of involuntary childlessness. Our time to pregnancy data are self-reported and may be confounded by recall bias. However, we believe that our conclusions are not affected by such bias because we also assessed fertility based on data such as having received infertility treatments, which is not prone to recall bias and showed similar results.

We also studied the effects of treatment within treated women only. We found that although age at initiation of treatment was not associated with outcome, duration of treatment was significantly correlated with time to pregnancy. Women with a TTP of more than 12 months had on average been treated for 3 months longer. Although the effect of oral contraceptives on subsequent fertility has not been extensively studied, one study has reported an effect of estrogen dose on conception delay. Recent studies did not find such an association, possibly because low-dosage estrogen pills were used. Because of no variation in dosage in our population, we were unable to study the effect of estrogen dose more specifically.

Next, we analyzed ovarian function to study possible causes of the reduced fertility. Ovarian function was categorized based on serum gonadotropin levels. We observed an increased frequency of women with a hypergonadotropic profile. Our principal finding is that treated women are at increased risk of being diagnosed with IOF compared with untreated women. To account for normal changes in ovarian function in the late reproductive stages, treated and untreated women were divided into two age categories for the analysis of ovarian function. Taking these age categories into account, the odds of IOF diagnosis in treated women was almost 3-fold higher than in untreated women. Although ovarian function was primarily categorized based on serum FSH levels, the diagnosis of IOF was also supported by other parameters. We observed significantly decreased antral follicle counts and serum AMH levels in women with IOF as compared with normogonadotropic tall women. Serum AMH is currently the best marker for primordial follicle pool size because in the ovary it is expressed in granulose cells of follicles that have undergone recruitment but have not yet been selected for dominance. In addition, AMH plays an important role in regulating folliculogenesis because it is involved in determining the individual FSH threshold of early antral follicles. In addition, we believe some other possible pathologies, such as PCOS, can now be excluded as a potential cause of the observed infertility because of prevalence levels similar to the estimated population frequency.

Finally, we compared our results to a cohort of healthy fertile controls. Parameters of ovarian function were comparable between normogonadotropic tall women and these controls. Comparison with hypergonadotropic women confirmed that parameters of ovarian function in these women are indicative of accelerated follicle pool depletion.

The results of our study do not only validate earlier epidemiological findings from an Australian study but may also provide physicians with clinically useful information aiding in the diagnosis and treatment of estrogen-treated tall women with fertility problems. To our best knowledge, this is the first report establishing ovarian dysfunction in these women. It seems that follicle dynamics have changed in that respect that a considerable number of these women seem to suffer from accelerated follicle loss being reflected by increased serum FSH levels along with decreased AMH levels as well as low antral follicle counts. Hence, it seems that tall women who have been treated with estrogens in the past are prone to lose their reproductive capacity earlier in life, and they should be counseled accordingly.

In conclusion, we evaluated fertility and ovarian function in later life of tall women who did or did not receive high-dose estrogen treatment in adolescence. We found that estrogen-treated women experienced more difficulties conceiving and more often received medical treatment for infertility compared with untreated women. Treated women had a decreased chance of achieving at least one live birth. We observed a possible dose-response relationship because duration of treatment was correlated with time to pregnancy. Finally, we showed that treated women were at increased risk of being diagnosed with IOF. They exhibit signs of accelerated ovarian aging with concomitant follicle pool depletion, which may be the basis of the observed subfertility. However, the mechanism behind this accelerated follicle loss by high-dose estrogen treatment remains unknown and requires future research.

Click to download the full study.

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Reproductive performance of women with müllerian anomalies

Classification of the anomalies of Müllerian duct developed by American Fertility Society (1988) and reproduced by Troiano and McCarthy.


Reproductive performance of women with müllerian anomalies, Current opinion in obstetrics & gynecology, NCBI PubMed PMID: 17495638, 2007 Jun.

This review discusses current diagnostic techniques for müllerian anomalies, reproductive outcome data, and management options in reproductive-age women.

Multiple retrospective studies have investigated reproductive outcomes with müllerian anomalies, but few current prospective studies exist. Uterine anomalies are associated with normal and adverse reproductive outcomes such as recurrent pregnancy loss and preterm delivery, but not infertility. Furthermore, unicornuate, didelphic, bicornuate, septate, arcuate, and diethylstilbestrol-exposed uteri have their own reproductive implications and associated abnormalities. Common presentations of müllerian anomalies and current diagnostic techniques are reviewed. Surgical intervention for müllerian anomalies is indicated in women with pelvic pain, endometriosis, obstructive anomalies, recurrent pregnancy loss, and preterm delivery. Although surgery for most uterine anomalies is a major intervention, the uterine septum is preferentially managed with a hysteroscopic procedure. Several recent studies and review articles discuss management of the septate uterus in asymptomatic women, infertile women, and women with a history of poor reproductive outcomes. Current assessment of reproductive outcomes with uterine anomalies and management techniques is warranted.

Müllerian anomalies, especially uterine anomalies, are associated with both normal and adverse reproductive outcomes, and management in infertile women remains controversial.

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DES Grand Daughters Menstrual and Reproductive Characteristics

image of menstrual-cup
This 2006 data provide evidence of menstrual irregularity, delayed menstrual regularization, and increased infertility in DES Grand Daughters. Although this data provide limited evidence of an increased frequency of adverse pregnancy outcomes in third-generation women, most have not married or attempted to start families, and further follow-up will assess their reproductive experience.. Menstrual cup.


Menstrual and reproductive characteristics of women whose mothers were exposed in utero to diethylstilbestrol (DES), International journal of epidemiology, NCBI PubMed PMID: 16723367, 2006 Aug.

Full text: Oxford Journals, Medicine & Health, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 35, Issue 4Pp. 862-868, doi: 10.1093/ije/dyl106, August 2006.

In women, prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) is associated with adult reproductive dysfunction. The mouse model, which replicates many DES outcomes, suggests DES causes epigenetic alterations, which are transmissable to daughters of prenatally exposed animals. We report menstrual and reproductive characteristics in a unique cohort comprising daughters of women exposed prenatally to DES.

Menstrual and reproductive outcomes and baseline characteristics were assessed by mailed questionnaire in 793 women whose mothers had documented information regarding in utero DES exposure.

Mean age at menarche was 12.6 years in both groups,

  • but daughters of the exposed women attained menstrual regularization later (mean age of 16.2 years vs. 15.8 years; P = 0.05),
  • and were more likely to report irregular menstrual periods, odds ratio (OR) = 1.54 [95% confidence interval (95% CI 1.02–2.32)].

A possible association between mothers’ DES exposure and daughters’ infertility was compatible with chance, age, and cohort adjusted OR = 2.19 (95% CI 0.95–5.07). We found limited evidence that daughters of the exposed had more adverse reproductive outcomes, but daughters of exposed women had fewer live births (1.6) than the unexposed (1.9) (P = 0.005).

The high risk of reproductive dysfunction seen in women exposed to DES in utero was not observed in their daughters, but most women in our cohort have not yet attempted to start their families, and further follow-up is needed to assess their reproductive health. Our findings of menstrual irregularity and possible infertility in third-generation women are preliminary but compatible with speculation regarding transgenerational transmission of DES-related epigenetic alterations in humans.

Excerpts and Discussion

The mean birth weight of offspring appeared lower in daughters of the exposed than in the unexposed (3374.2 g vs. 3540.5 g) (P = 0.08).

Our data indicate that DES Grand Daughters attain menstrual regularity at a slightly later age than daughters of the unexposed and are more likely to experience menstrual irregularity.

Our study suggests that infertility may also be more frequent in the DES Grand Daughters, and that DES exposure may exacerbate age-related infertility, a possibility compatible with findings in men who were exposed to DES in utero. The proportion of third-generation women affected by infertility (5%) in this study was far lower than that observed in the (second) generation of women exposed in utero to DES (30%).

In the prenatally exposed women, infertility is primarily due to anatomic anomalies of the uterus or fallopian tubes; other diagnoses, including hormonal/ovulatory problems, play a less striking role. Anatomic and tissue anomalies were not observed in a study of 28 third-generation women, but the number of participants was too small to rule out a low prevalence, and some irregularities (e.g. uterine, tubal) might not be evident on physical examination.

Further follow-up is needed to confirm the possible infertility in the third-generation women, and to evaluate specific diagnoses, which may provide insight into DES-related mechanisms.

It is well-known that women exposed to DES in utero have increased pregnancy complications and adverse birth outcomes, including ectopic pregnancy, pregnancy loss, and preterm delivery. Our data are not conclusive regarding adverse pregnancy outcomes in third-generation women, although daughters of the exposed had somewhat fewer live born children and babies of slightly lower average birth weight. Further follow-up will be essential to assess reproductive outcomes as more of the third-generation women enter their reproductive years.

Click to download the full study.

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Reducing the Adult Height of Tall Girls with DES: Effects on Fertility

image of tall-girls
Estrogens have been used to reduce the height of unusually tall girls since the 1950s based upon the concept that, during normal puberty, increased estrogen levels lead to epiphyseal fusion in the long bones. DES treatment in adolescence seems to reduce female fertility in later life by 40%.


Oestrogen treatment to reduce the adult height of tall girls: long-term effects on fertility, Lancet (London, England), NCBI PubMed PMID 15500896, 2004 Oct.

Treatment with oestrogen to reduce the adult height of tall girls has been available since the 1950s. We undertook a retrospective cohort study to assess the long-term effects of this treatment on fertility.

Eligible participants were identified from the records of Australian paediatric endocrinologists who assessed tall girls from 1959 to 1993, and from self-referrals. Individuals included girls who had received oestrogen treatment (diethylstilboestrol or ethinyl oestradiol) (treated group) and those who were assessed but not treated (untreated group). Information about reproductive history was sought by telephone interview.

1432 eligible individuals were identified, of whom 1243 (87%) could be traced. Of these, 780 (63%) completed interviews: 651 were identified from endocrinologists’ records, 129 were self-referred. Treated (n=371) and untreated (n=409) women were similar in socioeconomic and other characteristics. After adjustment for age, treated women

  • were more likely to have ever tried for 12 months or more to become pregnant without success (relative risk [RR] 1.80, 95% CI 1.40-2.30);
  • more likely to have seen a doctor because they were having difficulty becoming pregnant (RR 1.80, 1.39-2.32);
  • and more likely to have ever taken fertility drugs (RR 2.05, 1.39-3.04).

Time to first pregnancy analysis showed that the treated group was 40% less likely to conceive in any given menstrual cycle of unprotected intercourse (age-adjusted fecundability ratio 0.59, 95% CI 0.46-0.76). These associations persisted when self-referred women were excluded.

High-dose oestrogen treatment in adolescence seems to reduce female fertility in later life. This finding has implications for current treatment practices and for our understanding of reproductive biology.

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Five Scary and Shocking Facts about Diethylstilbestrol

1. As early as 1939, researchers had shown that DES Diethylstilbestrol could cause cancer and changes in the reproductive tracts of mice and rats, but drug companies ignored these results ; they also tested DES on pregnant women without consent.

Image from A Healthy Baby Girl, a 1996 documentary in which filmmaker Judith Helfand chronicles the health consequences of her in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol
DES did not lead to healthier babies, nor did it prevent miscarriages, according to research that began appearing in 1953

2. In 1953, a study of 2000 women at the University of Chicago showed that DES did not prevent miscarriage; on the contrary, it was associated with increases in premature labor and a higher rate of abortions.

3. Despite this study, the drug continued to be used.  It wasn’t until 1971 that American drug companies were legally obliged to label DES “unsuitable for pregnant women”.  The FDA did not ban the drug but issued a contraindication which means that the drug DES continued to be prescribed to pregnant women even after the link between a rare form of vaginal cancer in young women and prenatal exposure to DES was established.

4. A whole generation of new medical students and doctors don’t know about Diethylstilbestrol, yet a study published in 2011 confirmed lifetime risk of adverse health effect in DES daughters (the youngest are in their mid 30’s early 40’s).  DES is one of those cases where the patients often know more about its effects than the doctors.

5. DES is a multi-generational tragedy.  Research by the Netherlands Cancer Institute in 2002 suggests that hypospadias a misplaced opening of the penis occurred 20 times more frequently among third-generation sons.  In laboratory studies of elderly third-generation DES-exposed mice born to DES daughter mice, an increased risk of uterine cancers, benign ovarian tumors and lymphomas were found.  Third-generation male mice were shown to be at risk for certain reproductive tract tumors.

Are we going to ignore these results like we did in 1939?

Third-generation children, the offspring of DES daughters and DES sons, are just beginning to reach the age when relevant health problems can be studied.  Funding for more research is critically needed to continue to look for evidence of reproductive abnormalities and cancers among third-generation DES women and men to ensure they receive appropriate follow-up care.