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Study finds timing of puberty has wide-ranging impacts on health in later life

18 Jun 2015

In the largest study of its kind to date, the timing of puberty1 was found to have a wide range of impacts on health in later life.

Researchers from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge found that the age at which both men and women begin puberty is associated with 48 different health conditions.

The study, published today in Scientific Reports, confirms previous findings that early puberty in women is a risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and showed, for the first time, that early puberty in men also influences these same conditions.

In addition, new links were found between the timing of puberty and a wider range of health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, glaucoma, psoriasis and depression in men and women, and also early menopause in women.

Researchers tested data from nearly half a million people in UK Biobank2, a national study for health research funded primarily by the MRC and the Wellcome Trust. Participants were asked to recall puberty-timing by remembering the age of their first monthly period for women and age at voice-breaking for men.

Those in the earliest or latest 20% to go through puberty had higher risks for late life disease when compared to those in the middle 20%, including around 50% higher relative risks for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and poor overall health. Furthermore, these disease links were not simply explained by weight or obesity.

It was previously thought that only those individuals with relatively early puberty were more susceptible to a handful of specific diseases.

Dr Felix Day, lead author of the study at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, said: “Up until now, the link between early puberty and risk of disease has been blamed on weight and obesity, but our findings suggest that men and women of a normal weight who go through puberty relatively early or late may also carry these risks.

"Though a study of this kind cannot distinguish between cause and effect, other evidence does point to a causal link between puberty and certain diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.”

Dr John Perry, Senior Investigator Scientist at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, added: “We are continuing to work to understand how puberty timing impacts later health and how this information may be used alongside efforts to support healthy lifestyle changes and prevent disease.

“It is important to note that the increase in disease risk attributable to puberty timing is still relatively modest and represents one of many factors that contribute to the overall risk of developing disease.”

The research was funded by the MRC.

Notes:

  1. The timing of puberty varies significantly between individuals, with the normal onset of puberty ranging from 8 to 13 in girls and from 9 to 14 in boys.
  2. UK Biobank recruited 500,000 people aged between 40-69 years in 2006-2010 from across the UK. Participants have undergone measures, provided blood, urine and saliva samples for future analysis, detailed information about themselves and agreed to have their health followed.

Categories

  • Categories: Research
  • Health categories: Generic
  • Strategic objectives: Life course perspective
  • Locations: Cambridge
  • Type: News article