The age at which girls begin their period has “declined dramatically” over the past 50 years. While the average age of menstruation is currently 12 years of age, it used to be 16 years of age in the early 20th century. Though we don’t know exactly why this is occurring, theories range from increasing rates of obesity, to an increase in exposure to chemicals in our environment, to increased rates of stress. Fat cells augment estrogen which may trigger early puberty and a stressful childhood can result in more cortisol being release which can also stimulate early puberty. According to the American Psychological Association, early puberty can have drastic effects on the mental health and well-being of girls including depression, substance use, and early sexual behavior.
In The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls by Sandra Steingraber, girls who get their periods first say they have "more negative feelings about themselves and suffer more from anxiety.” They also experience more eating disorders and are more likely to attempt suicide. Girls who began their periods earlier were also shown to have lower levels of education in adulthood.
A new study published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics has found that girls who begin their menstrual cycle earlier than others have higher rates of depressive symptoms and antisocial behavior as adults. While other studies have found a correlation between early menstruation and subsequent mental health problems in adolescence, there hasn’t been any research to date into early menstruation and its mental health effects in adulthood, until now.
The latest study, titled, Age at Menarche, Depression, and Antisocial Behavior in Adulthood, was conducted by authors Jane Mendle from the Department of Human Development at Cornell University in New York, Rebecca M. Ryan of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia, and Kirsten M. P. McKone from the Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
The researchers were able to draw their conclusions after analyzing data from a previous study which examined adolescent health and risk behavior. Over 20,000 adolescents with an average age of 15 were interviewed in four waves from 1994 to 2008, allowing researchers to track the participants over the course of 14 years. Of the 20,000 participants, 7800 females provided information on the age at which they began their period. Current researchers looking into the effects of early menstruation on adulthood used the data from these 7800 females.
After analyzing the data, current researchers found that girls aged 10 had an eight per cent higher incidence of depressive symptoms than girls who started their period at 12 years of age. They also found that girls who began their menstrual cycle at eight years of age had a 25 per cent higher incidence of depressive symptoms. By the time the female participants reached 30 years of age, researchers found that depressive symptoms were still evident. For those at age 30 who started their period at age 10, six per cent had a higher rate of depressive symptoms than girls who began their period at age 12. And for those at age 30 who started their period at age eight, 20 per cent had a higher rate of depressive symptoms.
Researchers also looked at the effect of early menstruation on antisocial behavior and found that though not as high as depressive symptoms, girls who began their period early were more likely to engage in antisocial behavior during adolescence and adulthood. Girls who began their period at age 10 had a five per cent higher incidence of antisocial behavior than girls who began their period at age 12. Girls who began their monthly cycle at age eight had a 10 per cent higher incidence of antisocial behavior.
The authors of the study published in the Journal of Pediatrics believe their analysis proves earlier puberty in girls results in a higher rate of mental health issues in these girls in adolescence and adulthood and would like to see this area which they describe a “public health issue”, taken seriously and studied more widely.
American Psychological Association, (March 2016), The Risks of Early Puberty, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/03/puberty.aspx
Graber JA, (July 2013), PubMed, Pubertal timing and the development of psychopathology in adolescence and beyond,https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23998670
Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., (August 2007), The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls, http://www.mcsresearch.net/Reports/The%20Falling%20Age%20of%20Puberty%20report.pdf