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Early puberty in girls shown to affect mental health into adulthood

By Jane Lewis
Earlier age at menarche is associated with a higher rate of both depressive symptoms and antisocial behaviours in early to middle adulthood, suggests new research published in Pediatrics.

According to the authors of the study, early pubertal timing in girls is known to be associated with a range of mental health problems in adolescence, yet few researchers have examined the duration of these effects.

‘This is an interesting study, and the first of its kind to demonstrate a persisting association between the timing of menarche in girls and depressive symptoms and antisocial behaviour,’ commented Professor George Patton, Director of Adolescent Health Research at the Royal Children’s Hospital, and Leader, Population Health Studies of Adolescents, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne.

The study was based on data collected by multiple interviews conducted with 7802 women participating in the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health over a 14-year period (1994 to 2008). Early-maturing girls were found to be more prone to depressive symptoms in adulthood than girls who matured later. The authors suggested this was ‘primarily because they become depressed as adolescents, and this vulnerability persists over the next decade and one-half.’ Analysis also suggested that earlier menarche was associated with higher rates of antisocial behaviours in both adolescence and adulthood.

‘These findings indicate that the emotional sequelae of puberty extend further than documented in previous research, and suggest that earlier development may place girls on a life path from which it may be difficult to deviate,’ the authors concluded.

According to Professor Patton, the study added to the list of health risks associated with early menarche, which include increased risks of cardiometabolic problems and hormonally sensitive cancers later in life.

‘If the findings are confirmed in other studies, it raises a question as to whether processes underpinning the fall in the age of puberty – such as childhood obesity and changing patterns of childhood infectious disease – might also be underpinning recent secular trends to higher rates of depression and related disorders in adolescent girls and young women,’ he told Medicine Today.
Pediatrics 2018; 141(1): e20171703.