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What getting your period at an early age means for your health as an adult

In 1998, while most girls my age were crying over the Spice Girls breakup or confessing their undying love for Leonardo DiCaprio, I was stressing about my period. I was sneaking pads up my sleeves, rushing to the bathroom and making sure that no one was in the stall next to me.

I was nine years old.

And because of my early start, the likelihood of contracting certain diseases and ailments is much higher.

According to the Susan G. Komen foundation, women who get their first period at a young age are 20 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who started their period in their mid teens. It appears that this may be due to the increased amount of estrogen a woman has in her body over a prolonged period of time, as estrogen is also linked to breast cancer because it can cause cancer cells to grow.

Of course, it wasn’t until a friend and I were exchanging first period stories almost 20 years later that I found this out. I mentioned how early my period started and she mentioned the cancer risk. I laughed it off initially. I was sure someone would have told me this if it were true, but then I did some research.

I was in fact at a higher risk for breast cancer and a slew of other health conditions.

Other studies have shown that girls and women who started menstruation earlier had a higher risk of heart-related problems. According to one study published in Circulation, girls who started menstruating before the age of 10 and after the age of 17 were 27 percent more likely to develop heart disease, 20 percent more likely to develop high blood pressure, and 16 percent more likely to have a stroke. If a woman gets her period before the age of 13, she’s also 70 percent more likely, compared to those who get it at 13, to develop Type-2 diabetes.

Researchers are still trying to figure out why exactly some girls start their periods so early. Some suggestions include a low birth weight, environmental factors like pollution, obesity and the age in which a woman’s mother started menstruating.

In fact, one study found that in the early 20th century, most girls got their first period around the age of 16 or 17. A century later, that age has dropped to about 13. Experts suggest this may be because more children are overweight and are exposed to more pollution, which is thought to accelerate this part of puberty.

Knowing that early periods may be more than just an annoying part of life, we have to keep making them a part of the conversation. They are nothing to be ashamed of. Women shouldn’t feel like menstruation is a secret, and more awareness about the risk factors associated with early periods brings better prevention. If you started your period exceptionally early, talk to your doctor about what it may mean for you. And don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

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