The menopause – when a woman stops having periods and is no longer able to conceive naturally - usually occurs between 45 and 55 as levels of the hormone oestrogen dip.
The average age for the start of the menopause in the UK is 51.
However, around 10% of women experience an early menopause.
The research team, led by the University of Massachusetts, based their findings on 78,759 women enrolled in the US Nurses' Health Study II in 1989. By 2011, the records showed that 2,804 of the women had reported an early menopause, defined as being before the age of 45.
They found that:
Women who had been underweight at any point in their lives – with a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 had a 30% higher risk of an early menopause compared with lean or healthy weight women with a BMI of between 18.5 and 22.4
Overweight women with BMIs between 25 and 29.9 had a 21-30% lower risk of early menopause compared to healthy weight women
Women who were underweight at 18 with a BMI of less than 17.5 had a 50% higher risk of early menopause compared to lean or healthy weight women
Women who had a BMI of less than 18.5 when they were 35 had a 59% increased risk
They also found that underweight women who reported losing 20lbs (9kg) or more on at least 3 occasions between the ages of 18 and 30 had a 2.4-fold higher risk of early menopause. But the researchers say this particular finding should be treated with caution as it applied to only 7 of the women.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Commenting on the study by email, Kathy Abernethy, chairman of the British Menopause Society, says: "The findings of this study highlight the need for women to maintain a healthy weight, for health reasons, not just after menopause but across all ages.
"The risks of being overweight are generally better understood but women often don't realise the potential hormonal complications of being very underweight, even in younger years.
"Sustained low weight described in this study of BMI of 18.5 or less (healthy BMI is usually 20-25) would have many health implications for a woman and earlier menopause is one risk."
Editor's note - this article was updated after publication to include British Menopause Society reaction
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