Girls who start menstruating early show more symptoms of depression and a greater tendency for anti-social behavior like stealing, lying, and breaking into buildings than girls who experience their first period at later ages, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.
“There’s a small but significant and salient correlation,” says Jane Mendle, a researcher at Cornell University’s Department of Human Development and the study's lead author.
While past studies had correlated emotional and behavioral problems with early menarche (one’s first period), this analysis utilized data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, an ethnically and sociologically diverse database of surveys of 7,800 women and girls conducted from 1994 to 2008 that tracked some of them through all 14 years. The analysis found that the correlation between early menarche and depression symptoms lasts into adulthood. “There may be an age when everything evens out, but our study results suggest that it’s not necessarily by age 28,” Medle says. Age 28 is the last in which the survey caught up with its reoccurring participants.
Menstruation marks the start of puberty, Mendle says, and early menstruators begin to develop adult physical traits younger. She thinks that the main factor in the increased mood and behavior problems is the way early bloomers are treated like they are older than they are.
“As girls enter puberty, they start to look older, and the world often responds to that,” Medle says. “Their lives change in numerous ways, some big and some small. It’s common to encounter changes in friendships, to have more autonomy from parents, or to encounter different social circumstances. Early maturers may look old, but they still think and feel like other girls their age. Their cognitive, social, and emotional development doesn’t necessarily match their physical appearance. This mismatch can sometimes make it more difficult to adapt to all of the new changes and experiences that accompany this transition.”
The mean age of menarche is 12, according to the National Longitudinal Study. At that age, 31.6 percent of girls surveyed got their first period. Ages 11 (when 19.2 percent of girls in the study first menstruated) and 13 (when 24.4 percent did) were also common years for menarche.
The 10.3 percent of girls who experienced their first period from age 8 to 10 had a greater accumulation of depressive symptoms. Girls who were the first in the study to menstruate had it particularly tough. Through adolescence (which the study quantifies as ages 7 to 17), the average girl who reached menarche at age 8 revealed 25 percent more depression symptoms, when answering a survey, than the norm. The average girl who first menstruated at 10 had 8 percent more depression symptoms.
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Girls in these categories maintained a propensity for depression symptoms into adulthood. Those who began menstruating at age 8 still had particularly strong propensity; the average 28-year-old woman reporting 20 percent more symptoms than her peers with more average menarches. Women who experienced menarche at age 10 had, on average, six percent more symptoms than the norm for the study at age 28.
The correlation between what parents and principals would see as bad behavior isn’t as strong, Medle says, but it exists. When presented with lists of “anti-social behaviors” (stealing, breaking into a building, selling drugs, running away from home, lying to parents, driving a car without the owner’s permission, and being loud and rowdy in public, etc.), girls who began menstruating at age 8 reported 10 percent more instances than average and girls who began at age 10 reported 5 percent more.
Mendle says she is not sure if this correlation between depressive symptoms and troublesome behavior and early puberty is a unique burden to the female gender. “Boys’ puberty is under-researched compared to girls, in large part because it’s a bit trickier to measure since boys don’t get periods,” she says. “Some research suggests that boys who reach puberty ahead of peers also find adolescence more challenging than boys who develop later. But we also know that, generally, puberty tends to be more challenging for girls than for boys, and that girls are more likely to experience a greater variety and greater severity of psychological difficulties at this time.”
Spending a greater amount of time in the psychological pitfall of confusion and angst that is puberty and less in the simple and unaware stage that is childhood may account for some of this troubled path for early bloomers, Medle says.
“At puberty, kids are hit with a combination of biological and social changes that impact virtually every domain of their lives,” she says. “Even though it’s a biological transition, it’s accompanied by dramatic changes in social roles and relationships, emotions, and how kids think about themselves and others, and their place in the world.”
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