Girls’ periods starting earlier and more irregular: Study

Michelle Wisbey

31/05/2024 4:23:27 PM

A 55-year study found this trend is more likely in areas of disadvantage, leading one GP to call for a bolstering of early education and support.

Teenage girl with hands on head in class.
Scientists found the mean age at menarche decreased from 12.5 years in 1950–69 to 11.9 years in 2000–05.

A modern world filled with stress, poor nutrition, and pollution could be impacting when girls get their first period, with new research revealing significant trends toward earlier menarche.
According to a new Harvard University study of 71,341 American women between 1950 and 2005, the percentage of girls whose first period is ‘early’ or ‘very early’ has nearly doubled over those five decades.
The research found the mean age at menarche decreased from 12.5 years in 1950–69 to 11.9 years in 2000–05.
At the same time, there is a longer time to girls reporting period regularity, with these trends more pronounced among Asian, non-Hispanic Black, and Hispanic populations, as well as those from low socioeconomic areas.
GP and women’s health expert Associate Professor Magda Simonis said Australia could be heading in the same direction as the US, with the two nations sharing similar social behaviours, dietary trends, exposure to chemicals, and standard of living.
‘In Australia, the average age of the first period is about 13 years old and around 12% of children get their period between the ages of eight and 11, which is not insignificant,’ she told newsGP
‘Nutrition would be the top most reason for this as we have seen even from studies which documented the effects of poor nutrition during war time.
‘The increase in body mass index or childhood obesity due to dietary choices and children spending more time on computers and games is considered an important factor.’
The number of individuals experiencing ‘early’ menarche increased from 449 (8.6%) to 1223 (15.5%), while those with ‘very early’ menarche increased from 31 (0.6%) to 110 (1.4%).
Additionally, among the 61,932 participants who reported time to regularity, the number reaching regularity within two years changed from 3463 to 4075, while the number not yet in regular cycles changed from 153 to 1375.
The scientists behind the research say many environmental and social factors could be leading to this change.
They also single out obesity as a risk factor for early-onset puberty, and as the prevalence of childhood obesity has increased, they believe this could be connected, but caution it has not been proven.
‘Early menarche is associated with increased risk of adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, spontaneous abortion, and premature death, whereas late menarche is associated with increased risk of fractures,’ researchers said.
‘Longer time to regularity has been associated with lower fecundability, longer menstrual cycles, and increased risk of metabolic conditions and all-cause mortality.’
For those women living in lower socioeconomic areas of Australia, including young girls navigating menarche for the first time, access to products, information, and support can feel out of reach.
According to Share the Dignity’s Period Pride report, a survey of more than 125,000 Australians, 22% of women have had to improvise on period products due to their cost.
Nearly half of respondents said they had skipped school for at least an entire day because of their period, and when students do attend school through their period, 74% said they often find it difficult to pay attention.
Associate Professor Simonis said girls getting earlier periods can have long-term and life-altering impacts.
‘The early onset might mean in those with heavy menstrual bleeding that they have fewer school attendance days than other girls, will participate in less sport, especially swimming,’ she said.
‘Overall, this has impacts on weight, metabolism, and lifestyle behaviour to do with physical wellbeing and fitness long term.
‘This then has a secondary impact on long term health outcomes – the more sedentary the child is through puberty, adolescence, and early adulthood, the more likely they will be at risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease.’
The research comes as periods and menstruation remains a taboo subject for many, especially young girls, with 37% of women talking about their periods only if they have concerns.
Women are also calling for their doctors to take a more active approach in their period management, with 44% saying they would like healthcare professionals to proactively discuss this in consultations.
These women said they specifically want their doctor to bring up menstruation because they feel ‘uncomfortable’, ‘ashamed’, or ‘embarrassed’ to broach the subject themselves.
Moving forward, Associate Professor Simonis is calling for Australia to bolster its education offerings about periods, with many children not taught about menstruation and puberty until late primary school.
‘A significant proportion of students are getting their first period as early as year 3 or even year 2, but primary school students are not officially taught about puberty until years 5 and 6 which suggests that talking about periods and pubertal changes earlier in primary school is warranted,’ she said.
‘We need better, earlier education around menstruation and to remove the stigma associated with menstruation. 
‘It is a normal phase of maturation, and increasing awareness and removing the stigma may reduce the incidence of shame around this, and the mental health issues that can develop from feelings of embarrassment from early school days can be avoided.’
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Dr Alison Margaret Bignell   4/06/2024 11:43:29 AM

Insulin resistance seems to be a growing trend, and associated with obesity, early menarche and heavy, painful and irregular menses. For the young, it is important to address this with the aim of achieving regular ovulation, with its important effect on adolescent brain development, and future fertility prospects. Too often these young women are managed with the oral contraceptive to “regulate” the cycle without addressing the underlying disorders.

A.Prof Christopher David Hogan   4/06/2024 2:41:28 PM

When can we start improving the level of Community Health Literacy?
It is at a critically low level now & misinformation is rife.