Early puberty in girls can increase the likelihood of developing depression or antisocial behavior, a prospective study found

“Earlier pubertal timing in girls is often accompanied by distinct rises in the prevalence, severity, and onset of psychopathology,” wrote Jane Mendle, PhD, of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and her associates. “It is difficult to know whether, when, and on what processes to intervene if we cannot establish how much pubertal timing matters for well-being later in life.”

Investigators gathered 7,802 women from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to participate in this study between 1994 and 2008. The Add Health study was known for a “high degree of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity,” the researchers said. The results were published in the journal Pediatrics .

Patients were evaluated in four waves, with average ages of 15.8 years, 16.1 years, 21.7 years, and 28.7 years for waves one through four, respectively.

Symptoms for depression and antisocial behavior were evaluated using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale , a self-reported survey, and a self-reported questionnaire on recent antisocial behaviors including theft, property damage, and selling drugs. The youngest girls also were asked about running away from home, lying to parents, shoplifting, and driving a car without the owner’s permission, while the oldest participants were asked about deliberately writing a bad check, using someone else’s debit card without permission, and buying or selling stolen property. Those participating were mostly white (66%) and on average experienced menarche at age 12 years.

Older age at menarche was significantly associated with lower levels of symptoms of depression (b = –0.87, P less than .05), when data were analyzed in a proximal influences model.

“To illustrate, a girl who reached menarche at age 10 years (approximately 2 years earlier than the mean) would have depressive symptoms 8% of 1 SD [standard deviation] greater in adolescence, whereas a girl who reached menarche at age 8 years would have depressive symptoms 25% of 1 SD greater,” the investigators wrote.

A linear and quadratic association between early menarche and depressive symptoms persisted as patients reached their 30s, suggesting girls who matured earlier are more likely to display symptoms of depression as an adult because they became depressed as teenagers and they remain vulnerable, Dr. Mendle and her colleagues reported.

Early maturation also was associated with a higher frequency of antisocial behavior in both proximal (b = –.009, P less than .05) and lingering (b = –0.02, P less than .05) models.

Dr. Mendle and her colleagues found the gap in antisocial activity between those who matured early and those who did not was more pronounced in adulthood than adolescence, and the effects of antisocial behavior were smaller than the effects of depressive symptoms.

The investigators said they were limited by an incomplete understanding of why these longitudinal effects continue. Also, because they used age at menarche as an indicator of pubertal timing, the investigators said they could not capture the social, emotional, or hormonal processes present earlier in puberty.

“Results from the current study suggest that girls who experienced earlier menarche continued to report elevated psychopathology in early-to-middle adulthood even after accounting for demographic and contextual variables commonly associated with vulnerability for mental health. These findings align with the broad body of work linking early puberty with higher psychopathology during adolescence‍ as well as with the few studies showing longer-term associations with mental health in adulthood,” Dr. Mendle and her associates wrote.

“Understanding the longevity of these associations offers new challenges to researchers, [and] practical information for pediatricians and adolescent health care providers, and highlights that the emotional sequelae of puberty may endure well past the proximal period of adolescence,” they concluded. There also may be other disorders beyond depression and antisocial behavior associated with early puberty, which should be explored.

This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The investigators reported no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Mendle J et al. Pediatrics. 2017 Dec 26. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-1703 .


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