03/28/19 | share:
By Kate Welsh
As I walked home the other day, I stopped mid-stride in the sidewalk to gawk. Finally, after a long winter (is there such a thing as a short winter?), the early bloomers had arrived: Crocuses, snow drops, even a bold daffodil or two had popped out of the cold, gray ground. They were gorgeous. And it made me wonder: Why do we hear so much about late bloomers, and barely anything about early ones?
There are rom-coms and sitcoms and bildungsroman galore about people who didn’t get kissed until college or grow boobs until their 20s. It helps that among these self-described late bloomers are two of the funniest women on the planet, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. (“I was a late bloomer,” the latter said, “which I’d recommend to anyone.”)
Early blooming, on the other hand, is often treated with apprehension. That makes sense, right? They’re the ones venturing into the great unknown first. But when it comes to precocious menstruation (“precocious” is the actual clinical term) or premature menopause, this concern is sometimes for good reason: experiencing the symptoms of puberty or menopause at an earlier-than-normal age might warrant some medical investigation.
What qualifies as “early” when it comes to periods and menopause?
The average age of a first period in the U.S. today is about 12.5 years old, with breast development and hair growth usually beginning 2-3 years before. Menstruation is considered precocious when it occurs before the age of 8. The average age of menopause is 51 years old. Menopause is considered premature when it occurs before the age of 40.
This overall decline in the age of the start of puberty isn’t entirely unexpected—human sexual maturity naturally occurs earlier in healthy societies with access to adequate nutrition. But some experts still question whether this “natural” development is entirely harmless.
Why puberty and periods start earlier
Everything from chemicals in our everyday environment (called endocrine-disruptors) to growth hormones in livestock and dairy cows has been linked to early menstruation, but we need more conclusive research to know the full picture.
Some experts think precocious puberty could be more of a psychological side effect: Insecure parental attachment and paternal absence have been linked to accelerated sexual maturity. Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Louise Greenspan reported that when a girl’s biological father is absent, she is “twice as likely to get her period before age twelve (even when controlling for other factors).” The idea is that these factors can trigger an evolutionary response in a young person to grow up faster, and establish their own mates and families.
Sometimes early puberty happens just because of a person’s wiring. The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that abnormalities in a person’s pituitary gland or hypothalamus can make sex hormones start working earlier than normal. The rise in obesity is also thought to be a contributing factor in earlier first periods. Research shows that a higher amount of body fat can correlate to higher (and even excess) levels of estrogen, which can lead to early puberty.
Causes of early menopause
While people with periods get them younger almost every year, the age of menopause has stayed the same for decades. Partially because it’s less common, there are much clearer causes of premature menopause.
If a person’s parent went through early menopause, they’re far more likely to experience it too. Simple as that. There’s rarely anything to worry about when this is the case, but a doctor should be able to tell you if there’s something else going on.
Lifestyle can also have an impact: lower estrogen from cigarette smoking or other habits can promote early menopause. A low body mass index—when someone doesn’t have enough fat on her body—contributes to low estrogen and therefore early menopause as well. Chromosomal, genetic, and autoimmune disorders can affect how your ovaries function, and are commonly linked to premature menopause.
Treatments for other diseases, such as radiation or chemotherapy, are another common cause, but it depends on the duration and strength of treatment. Obviously, a hysterectomy, a common solution for people coping with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis, would do the same.
When it comes to periods and menopause, there’s far more that’s considered “normal” than “abnormal.” Just more proof that every body is different. But if menstruation or menopause happens before you (or your daughter or granddaughter) expect it to, make sure you check in with a health professional. (And stay prepared with our period-proof undies for tweens and teens or our classic pee-proof Hiphugger.)
Were you an early bloomer? A late bloomer? Share your first period or menopause story in the comments!