Why are girls getting their period younger?

Over the past few decades, doctors and researchers have noticed a concerning trend – girls are getting their first period, known as menarche, at younger and younger ages. Historically, the average age for a girl to get her first period was around 15 or 16. However, studies show this age has been steadily dropping over the years. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for girls to start their periods as young as age 8 or 9.

This trend raises a lot of questions and concerns for both parents and doctors. Early puberty can put girls at higher risk for issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and risky behaviors. It also means they’ll spend more of their lives dealing with menstrual cramps, PMS, and other period-related symptoms. So why is this happening? What’s causing the average menarche age to decrease? Let’s take a closer look at the potential reasons.

Obesity Epidemic

One major theory is that childhood obesity is playing a role. Over the past few decades, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the United States. Obese children tend to go through puberty earlier than children of healthy weights.

Researchers believe that for girls, excess body fat can lead to increased production of the hormone leptin. Leptin is involved in energy regulation in the body. But it also plays a role in controlling reproduction. Higher leptin levels can trigger puberty to start earlier.

So as obesity rates climb, researchers suspect the average age of menarche is decreasing as more girls with excess body fat go through precocious puberty. Supporting this theory, studies show that obese girls are more likely to get their first period before age 12 compared to girls of normal weight.

Obesity Statistics

Year Obesity Rate in Children (Ages 6-11) Obesity Rate in Adolescents (Ages 12-19)
1976-1980 7% 5%
2003-2004 19% 17%
2011-2012 18% 21%

As illustrated in the table above, childhood and adolescent obesity rates have risen significantly over the past 30+ years, which correlates to the decrease in menarche age.

Chemical Exposure

Chemical exposure, especially to endocrine disruptors, is another theory for why puberty is starting earlier in girls. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with natural hormone levels in the body.

Two endocrine disruptors researchers are concerned about are BPA and phthalates. BPA is found in some plastics, food cans, and other common products. Phthalates are added to plastics to make them more flexible. Both BPA and phthalates are concerning because they mimic estrogen in the body. Early exposure to higher levels of estrogen could trigger the onset of puberty at younger ages.

Studies have found associations between BPA exposure and early puberty development in girls. Girls with higher BPA levels tend to enter puberty at younger ages. Phthalates have also been linked to precocious puberty in girls. Researchers speculate that as use of products containing these chemicals has increased over the years, chemical exposure levels have also risen, contributing to earlier average menarche ages.

Average BPA Levels Over Time

Year Average BPA Concentration in Urine (nanograms/milliliter)
1988–1994 1.82
2003–2004 2.92
2009–2010 1.53

This table displays the increase in average urinary BPA concentrations from the late 1980s to early 2000s, which correlates with decreasing menarche ages over this timeframe. Levels decreased from 2003-2010 as some products were reformulated to be BPA-free. However, exposure remains common.

Increased Body Fat and Pubertal Timing

As we’ve discussed, excess body fat and obesity are linked to earlier puberty onset in girls. But even for girls in normal BMI ranges, higher levels of body fat may be contributing to earlier development of breasts and other curves that are part of pubertal changes.

Some researchers suspect that as nutrition has improved over the decades and food has become more abundant, girls may be accumulating more body fat on average at younger ages. This slight increase in body fat could be enough to trigger hormonal cascades that launch puberty.

Studies show an association between higher prepubertal BMI and body fat percentages and earlier breast development, even when BMIs are still in the healthy range. Girls today may simply be reaching the critical levels of body fat needed for puberty at younger ages compared to previous generations. More research is still needed, but this is one potential explanation.

Stress and Family Problems

Stress, family problems, and adverse childhood experiences may also contribute to earlier puberty. Studies suggest that girls from families with high rates of stress, conflict, divorce, or other challenges tend to go through puberty earlier.

Researchers are still understanding the full reasons for this connection. Possible explanations include effects of the stress hormone cortisol on pubertal development, as well as “psychosocial acceleration theory.” This theory suggests that girls who grow up in stressful family environments perceive the world as unsafe or unstable.

As a result, their bodies initiate puberty faster in order to prepare for reproduction earlier in response to environmental cues about threats to survival. More research is needed, but stress and adversity seem to play a role in decreasing menarche age.

Nutrition and Diet Quality

Diet quality can also influence the timing of a girl’s first period. While obesity and higher body fat are linked to early puberty, another important factor is nutrition and food choices.

Several studies have found associations between earlier menarche and diets high in processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and animal fats. On the other hand, diets rich in vegetables, fiber, plant-based protein sources, and healthy fats may delay first periods.

One reason may be insulin signaling. Diets full of processed carbs and sugars lead to higher insulin levels, which could activate reproductive hormones. Additionally, the types of fats consumed impact estrogen production. Healthy fats help regulate estrogen in ways that delay puberty, while low-quality fats from meat and dairy may have the opposite effect.

Age of Menarche and Diet Type

Diet Type Average Age of Menarche
Vegan diet 14.2 years
Vegetarian diet 12.8 years
Standard Western diet 12.5 years

As shown above, following a vegan or vegetarian diet is associated with older average menarche ages compared to a standard Western diet high in meat and processed foods. This suggests nutrition can influence pubertal timing.

Increased Bright Light Exposure

Melatonin is a hormone involved in regulating circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Research over the past decade suggests melatonin may also play a key role in triggering puberty. Melatonin levels decrease as puberty approaches.

Artificial bright light inhibits melatonin production. Some researchers believe increased exposure to light from TVs, computers, phones, and tablets could be lowering melatonin levels earlier and contributing to declining menarche ages.

Animal studies support this theory. For example, rats exposed to extra light went through puberty significantly earlier than rats kept in normal light conditions. More research is needed, but light exposure’s role in regulating melatonin and pubertal development shows promise.

Genetics and Epigenetics

Genetics and epigenetics may also help explain the variability in menarche timing from one girl to the next. However, they likely do not account for the population-level decline in average age over generations.

Genes related to obesity may make some girls more predisposed to early puberty. Also, epigenetic changes caused by environmental exposures in the womb or during childhood could affect when puberty starts. Still, genetics cannot fully explain the dramatic shift over just a few decades.


In conclusion, earlier average menarche ages are likely caused by a combination of factors. Rising obesity rates, increased exposure to endocrine disruptors, slight elevations in body fat, high stress environments, and poor diets all seem to contribute. Each of these factors may lower the threshold of body fat needed to enter puberty in girls.

There are also complex interactions between these variables. Obesity interacts with hormonal disruptors, insulin resistance, light exposure, and genetics. Psychological stress connects with dietary choices and weight gain. Timing varies based on an individual’s unique circumstances, but the population-wide trend suggests a role for modifiable environmental factors.

While concerning, this trend highlights opportunities to make positive changes. Promoting healthy weights, reducing chemical exposures, improving family dynamics, encouraging better sleeping habits, and focusing on balanced diets can all help girls transition through puberty at more appropriate ages. Medical professionals, parents, schools, and communities can work together to create conditions that allow girls to remain girls for as long as nature intended.

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