About 550,000 hysterectomies are performed every year in the United States, a country in which a woman has about a 50 percent chance of undergoing this major surgery before she dies.

The average age of an American woman having a hysterectomy is 35. From then on, premature aging sets in unless and until action is taken to prevent it.Women in the United States have hysterectomies by the age of 44 at five times the rate of women in six European countries, where the rate is 4 percent.

Those facts are disturbing and cause for concern, particularly because hysterectomy is not the innocuous procedure that many women are led to believe it is, says Dr. Winnifred B. Cutler, a reproductive biologist, researcher and author.

She blames the continued high incidence of hysterectomy on many women and doctors who believe that the uterus is of little value beyond enabling the bearing of children.

Over and above that, she says, there remains within some areas of the medical community "a lack of perception and awareness of the often serious physical and emotional problems experienced by women who undergo hysterectomy and ovariectomy."

In her new book, "Hysterectomy: Before and After - A Comprehensive Guide to Preventing, Preparing for and Maximizing Health After Hysterectomy," Cutler discloses critical new scientific evidence of "the intimate interaction between the uterus, ovaries and the brain."

She explains, "There's an internal `cross-talk' among these three parts of the triangle, and if you remove one of these parts - if you cut it away - it's got to have a profound effect on every part of the body."

This view is being acknowledged today, but for years doctors believed this surgery had no effect on the body. And, when women would ask their physicians about the side effects of hysterectomy, physicians would reply, "It won't affect your sex life. If you had a good one before, you will have a good one afterward."

But, not so, says Cutler. Sexual dysfunction often occurs in both the woman and her partner as a result of the surgery. For the woman, there is a loss of libido - for more than half of the women, it's a loss that doesn't respond to psychiatry or estrogen, although it does respond to testosterone.

Most women who have a hysterectomy, she says, can expect problems with vaginal lubrication within a couple of years unless they are receiving hormonal therapy. And, even if they are taking therapy, they may still have problems. There are orgasmic losses for many women too.

"A woman's most serious concern after hysterectomy should probably be cardiovascular disease, which claims the lives of more than 450,000 women each year in the United States," she says.

"Moreover, hysterectomy increases the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and dying of a heart attack rises threefold to sevenfold over that of age-matched women who have not had the surgery."

Asked when a woman should have a hysterectomy, the scientist says, "After she has empowered herself with the knowledge of how her body works and when she knows she will do more good for herself by removing her uterus than by any other path to overcome disease."