Most of us are well aware that hormones affect every aspect of both our physical and mental health. Hormones can have a positive impact (i.e., when it comes to antidepressants), as well as a negative one. Puberty is a notoriously difficult time, characterized by an influx of raging hormones, bodily changes, and angst. For some, it may have been more difficult and life-changing than previously believed. Getting your period young is related to depressive symptoms as an adult, according to a new study.
Dr. Jane Mendle, Professor of Human development at Cornell College and lead author of the study, which was published in Pediatrics, told Tonic the correlation between early onset of menstruation and mental health issues is “small but significant.” For their research, Dr. Mendle and her colleagues analyzed data from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) — a fourteen year-long study that surveyed over 7,800 women and girls from 1994 until 2008. The survey collected information on mental and physical wellness, biological traits, and environmental factors of women from diverse backgrounds. After examining the data, the researchers determined that the girls who began their periods at a younger age displayed higher rates of depressive symptoms and antisocial behaviors, such as lying, stealing, or not complying with rules.
Most people in the study reported experiencing menarche, aka the first time you get a period, between 11-13 years old, with the average hovering between 12 and 13. A little over 10 percent of the people studied reported having a first period between the ages of 8 and 10, but Dr. Mendle found these study participants disproportionately said they experienced a depressive symptoms compared to peers who fell in the median range. Specifically, the researchers found the younger a girl was when she started menstruating, the higher the rates of depressive symptoms becomes. While the participants who first menstruated at age 10 experienced 8 percent more depressive symptoms, the ones who started menstruating at age 8 reported 25 percent more depressive symptoms.
What's especially interesting, though, is how long these effects lasted. When revisiting the study participants in adulthood at age 28, Dr. Mendle found that the girls who began their periods between eight and ten still had higher rates of depression than their peers. “There may be an age when everything evens out, but our study results suggest that it’s not necessarily by age 28,” Dr. Mendle told Tonic. Unfortunately, the Add Health study concluded by the time the oldest participants were 28, so the correlation of earlier menstruation to depressive symptoms beyond age 28 needs further study.
Dr. Mendle hypothesized that the cause for the higher rates of depression in girls who started menstruating younger relates to how they were treated after hitting puberty. “As girls enter puberty, they start to look older, and the world often responds to that. 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,” Dr. Mendle explained to Tonic. “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.”
These findings shouldn’t be taken lightly: Girls are beginning to start their periods at a younger age overall, which means more may be at an increased risk of emotional and behavioral distress. Dr. Mendle writes in the study overview that “little is known about the long-term impact of earlier development,” and suggests that long term research from adolescence into later adulthood is logistically difficult to conduct. Though more research needs to be done, this study adds to the body of evidence on the correlation between the onset of menstruation and your vulnerability to mental health issues — even as an adult.