New study finds that Black children begin to menstruate at earlier ages

The research finds that children of color are starting menstruation at earlier ages at higher rates than white children.

According to a new study published in JAMA, menarche — a female's first period — has occurred steadily earlier and earlier for generations since the 1950s. But the cycle may start much earlier for youth of color. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

For half of the world’s population, puberty and the body’s changing hormones means the beginning of periods. For many females, starting their period is a rite of passage that typically occurs around middle school, but the cycle may start much earlier for some, particularly children of color.

According to a new study published in JAMA, menarche — the first period — has occurred steadily earlier and earlier for generations since the 1950s. Researchers examined data collected from 71,341 U.S.-based females born between 1950 and 2005. They observed “significant” trends toward earlier menarche in non-Hispanic Black, Asian, and mixed-race individuals compared with non-Hispanic whites.

“This is important because early menarche and irregular periods can signal physical and psychosocial problems later in life,” lead author Dr. Zifan Wang, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University, told CNN about the study’s findings.

“These trends, he added, “may contribute to the increase in adverse health outcomes and disparities in the U.S.”

The study, released in the final days of Menstrual Health Awareness Month, found that early menarche is associated with an increased risk of adverse health outcomes, including heart disease, cancer, spontaneous abortion, and premature death. Results also indicate that the trend is linked to lower socioeconomic status and high body mass index.

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“This implies that childhood obesity, which has been increasing in the U.S., might be contributing to people getting their periods earlier,” Wang told CNN.

Study authors found that high BMI at the time of menarche explained only 46% of the story, while the other 54% remains “unclear.” Noting that further research is needed, they suggest the environment, nutrition and even systemic racism could be potential factors. They strongly oppose any idea that genetics are involved.

“These disparities are unlikely to be attributed to genetic variations, suggesting they may be driven by other environmental or contextual factors that may, through racism, impact different pathways, leading to earlier menarche,” the authors wrote.

As more and more children begin their periods at earlier ages, there’s greater urgency for movements to end period poverty and the stigma around menstruation. Sabrina Natasha Browne of The Flow Initiative says one way to impact change is to talk about it. 

“We know that periods are not the easiest topic to talk about,” Browne told theGrio recently. “There’s a lot of stigma. Unfortunately, there can be some shame. … Let’s talk about periods as half the world gets their periods. Let’s not make the other half the world feel shame.”

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