How old were you when you got your flow?
Getting your first period definitely came with a little bit of street cred back in the day: You could finally complain about PMS and cramps!
But now tons of research shows that getting your period before age 12 might actually be linked with health issues down the road – and all of a sudden your days of trading tampons in middle school probably seem a little less cute.
Obviously, though, it’s too late to turn back the clock on your hormones, says Dr Lauren Streicher, associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Northwestern University.
That’s why, if your period did come early (show of hands?), it’s even more important to know and stay on top of any conditions linked with your early-to-arrive womanhood.
Here are seven health issues linked with early periods:
1. B.reast cancer
Your period is accompanied by extreme hormonal changes, especially in oestrogen, which is known to influence virtually every tissue in the body, says Dr Steicher.
And that includes your B00bs: Women who had their first bleed before age 12 were 50% more likely to develop B.reast cancer compared to those who got their period at age 16, according to a report from the B.reast Cancer Fund. The study explains that early puberty is associated with increased exposure to the B.reast-cancer-promoting hormone oestrogen.
2. Early menopause
Research published in the journal Human Reproduction in 2017 found that women who had their first period at age 11 or younger had an 80% higher risk of entering menopause before age 40 (premature menopause) and a 30% higher risk of menopause between the ages of 40 and 44 (early menopause), compared with women who got their first period between 12 and 13.
This risk is greatest in women who also have never had children, says Suzanne Steinbaum, director of the Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC.
3. Heart disease
Seriously, what doesn’t increase your risk of heart disease? According to a long-term 2018 observational study published in the journal Heart, women who report getting their first period before 12 are 10% more likely to experience heart disease than those who didn’t get their period until 13 or older.
However, Dr Streicher notes that, so far, there’s no proof that one causes the other – there’s simply a link.
It’s possible that childhood obesity, especially if it continues throughout adulthood, may be the common denominator. Fat cells are a large producer of period-triggering oestrogen, Dr Streicher explains. Increasing rates of childhood obesity may explain why the average age of first period has dropped by more than a month to 12 years and six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And of course, obesity is also linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
To make matters worse: Early menopause is also linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Early periods, weaker bones? The answer may depend on if you’re one of the unlucky women whose early periods contribute to early menopause, explains research in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. The study shows that the more oestrogen you’re exposed to over time, the more your body could be protected from osteoporosis.
This could go both ways: For some women, early periods means more years spent menstruating, and enjoying(?) higher levels of oestrogen, Steinbaum explains. That means a lower risk of osteoporosis, she says.
However, if your early period leads to an even earlier menopause, your risk of osteoporosis can increase in a big way. In the study, researchers concluded that menstruating for fewer than 25 years, rather than 35 or more, puts you at a greater risk of osteoporosis.
In the prevention of osteoporosis, strength training, calcium and vitamin D are your greatest allies. And, no, there’s no such thing as “too early” when it comes to taking care of your bones.
5. Ovarian cancer
Women who got their periods early were significantly more likely to develop ovarian cancer compared to later bloomers, according to an International Journal of Cancer meta-analysis of 27 previous studies.
To make matters worse, research also shows that ovarian cancer is 51% more likely to prove fatal in women who get their first period before the age of 12, compared to in those who got theirs at age 14 or later.
Again, oestrogen may play a role, according to Steinbaum. Talk to your doctor if you experience any ovarian cancer symptoms, as Paps don’t tend to catch ovarian cancer until it’s advanced.
A study of 13 308 women published in the journal Diabetologia also shows that women who get their periods early are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
According to researchers, the issue may not be that early periods cause diabetes, but that high levels of body fat cause both early periods as well as diabetes.
While it’s important to maintain overall healthy body fat levels, Steinbaum notes that belly, or visceral fat, which hangs out in and around the vital organs (as opposed to subcutaneous fat, which sits right under the skin) is the most detrimental to health and hormone levels.
Apart from the fact that early menopause can put a serious time-crunch on your family planning, research published in Fertility and Sterility shows that early periods are linked to a much greater risk of infertility.
Steinbaum explains that women who got their period early are prone to having low functional ovarian reserves, simply meaning that you’ve got fewer follicles growing eggs for potential fertilisation.
If you’re worried about yours, discuss ovarian reserve testing with your doctor.