Does later puberty make girls smarter?

Female puberty starts around 11 years, but sometimes begins as early as six or seven. It is a process that carries on for a number of years and girls are usually physically mature at around 14. 

A new study suggests that girls who begin puberty at an earlier age may spend fewer years at school.

On the other hand, starting menstruation later was associated with staying at school longer, British researchers found. For every one year increase in age before starting menstruation, a girl spent an additional 53 days at school, on average, according to the report.

Time spent in education important

"It's well established that the length of time that someone spends in education can have repercussions later on in life," said study lead author Dipender Gill, a clinical research fellow at Imperial College London.

"It is associated with socio-economic status, rates of depression, risk-taking behaviour and a range of health outcomes, so clearly time spent in education is important," Gill said in a college news release. "This study identifies that the age of puberty may have an effect on the length of time that women spend in education."

The study involved data on more than 118 000 European women.

One possible explanation for the findings is that young women who start having periods at an earlier age may be treated as more mature due to physical changes. But their emotional development doesn't match their physical development, the study authors said.

How to address the discrepancies

The difference between physical and mental maturation may lead to increased risk-taking, or an inability to adapt mentally to changes in how they are treated. Both can affect how long they stay in school, the study authors suggested.

The association seen in the study doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship. And, the authors said further research is needed to learn why the timing of a girl's first period might have such an effect.

"Once we understand the mechanism, it might give us the opportunity to address the discrepancies that we're seeing," Gill said.

One of the study's limitations was that the women were born from 1901 to 1989. Many social and educational changes occurred over those nine decades, the researchers pointed out. The study was published online in the journal Behavior Genetics.

Early puberty can have more negative effects. A study found a DNA link between early puberty and an increased cancer risk. It is also known that girls who experience early puberty can be prone to increased aggressive behaviour

Here is an adapted time frame of puberty, previously published on Health24.

Image supplied by iStock

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