In the United States, girls get their periods earlier. Here’s what parents should know: NPR

Girls in the United States are getting their first periods earlier than in decades past. Researchers say several factors cause early puberty, including obesity and environmental pollutants.


Girls in the United States are getting their first period earlier on average than in the 1950s and 1960s, according to a large new study published last week in the journal JAMA Network Open. It is a journal of the American Medical Association. And it takes longer for menstrual cycles to become regular. Here to tell us more about what it all means is NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Thank you very much for being with us today.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Oh, that makes me happy.

RASCOE: When we talk about early periods, how much earlier are we talking about?

GODOY: On average, it’s about six months earlier. So the average age was 12 and a half olal-Muwasid, and now it is just below 12 years. And that may not seem like a lot, but the number of girls who get their periods early or very early – so I’m talking about girls under 11 or even under 9, it’s about double . And while this trend occurs across all demographic groups, it is more pronounced among girls of color and those from lower incomes. I spoke with Dr. Shruthi Mahalingaiah from Harvard. She is the co-author of the study. And she notes that these trends have important implications for mental and emotional health.

SHRUTHI MAHALINGAIAH: You know, the younger you are when you get your first period, it’s very confusing. There is still a lot of stigma and silence about it. It is important to educate caregivers, parents, and providers about this trend so we can prepare our children as well.

GODOY: And, you know, just as importantly, earlier periods also have long-term implications for physical health.

RASCOE: So what kinds of long-term health problems might these girls face?

GODOY: Well, getting your first period at an earlier age has been linked to health problems such as a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even premature death. It is also linked to a higher risk of several cancers, including breast cancer. This is Lauren Houghton. She is an epidemiologist at Columbia University whose research focuses on women’s health.

LAUREN HOUGHTON: If a person gets their first period before the age of 12, their risk of breast cancer is increased by 20%.

GODOY: And this trend toward earlier puberty and menstruation has been going on for decades and happening all over the world. And given that these changes in menstruation timing can affect health later in life, researchers say it’s important to be aware of them. Houghton says we should view menstruation as a vital sign for health.

RASCOE: So do we know why this is happening?

GODOY: Well, every researcher I’ve talked to says it’s not just one thing. There are several factors. So, for example, obesity is known to be a risk factor for earlier periods in itself, but stress is also a known risk factor. And Houghton says: When you’re stressed, your body produces more cortisol and more androgens, and these are hormones that fatty tissue can then convert into estrogen.

HOUGHTON: And it’s estrogen that signals the body to make the breasts bigger, and then it’s cyclical estrogen – so changes in estrogen – that signal the body to actually start its menstrual cycles.

GODOY: There’s actually another very important factor here. Our environment is swimming in chemicals known to disrupt our endocrine system. For example, things like phthalates, which are found in plastics and a ton of personal care and cosmetic products, as well as some air pollutants are also endocrine disruptors.

RASCOE: Oh, wow. I mean, so what can a parent do?

GODOY: I have a young daughter and this is close to my heart. One thing is that tips for a healthy lifestyle in general can also help with earlier puberty. So eating a healthy diet including plenty of fruits and vegetables and getting daily physical activity can help alleviate some of these risk factors for puberty and early menstruation, and can also help reduce the risk of health problems. associated with the future if your child gets his period early. Getting enough sleep is difficult, but it’s also very important. Some studies have linked later bedtimes and shorter sleep duration with earlier puberty. And of course, if you’re the parent of a child approaching puberty, talk to them about what they can expect and realize that their first period might come sooner than you thought.

RASCOE: That’s NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

GODOY: Thank you.

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