By Danielle Schoenaker, The University of Queensland and Gita Mishra, The University of Queensland
As a young girl, getting your period for the first time is a big deal. It comes with mental and social expectations around “becoming a woman” and a host of cultural practices that act to celebrate or stigmatise menstruation.
But evidence now suggests the timing of this event could also have health implications for girls who get their first period earlier than their peers.
During puberty our bodies change and sexually mature, and a girl’s first period is an important point in this process. The age when girls get their first period varies, however younger than 12 years is generally considered to be “early”.
The possibility that a first period before the age of 12 is linked with pregnancy health was explored in our recent study. We found that girls who had early first periods were more likely to develop diabetes when they later became pregnant as an adult.
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Gestational diabetes is a serious pregnancy complication, as it increases the risk of pre-term labour and giving birth to a large baby. It is also considered a “stress test” for the later development of type 2 diabetes; both the mother and child in affected pregnancies face a six to seven fold increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Age of first period and diabetes during pregnancy.
We studied a group of more than 4,700 women from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (also known as Women’s Health Australia). This longitudinal study has collected detailed health and well-being information from the same women at multiple points in time over the past 20 years. The women were 18-23 years old in 1996 when the study started. The women reported on the age of their first period and were followed throughout their pregnancies.
Most women experienced their first period between age 12 and 13, but 12% had early first periods. We found girls who had their first periods before age 12 were more likely to be from a disadvantaged background in childhood. They were also more likely to report being overweight in childhood and in adult life, compared with women who had their first period at a later age. While taking these early life and adulthood characteristics into account, women with earlier first periods were still 50% more likely to develop diabetes during pregnancy.