Pubertal plasticity: biological, social, and cultural factors driving timing of female reproductive maturation

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University of Alabama Libraries

Humans possess tremendous plasticity in pubertal timing, adjusting to variation in environmental quality including availability and reliability of material and social resources. Yet, it is not well understood how accumulated childhood experiences involving an aggregate of both short-term and prolonged nutritional, familial, and social stress influence pubertal timing in the developed world. Furthermore, the literature fails to account for the role of culture: How do public perceptions shape the interpretation and recollection of events surrounding female sexual development? Given the dramatic somatic as well as behavioral consequences of advanced development, decreasing age of menarche currently observed in industrialized, Westernized nations is a significant topic within biological and anthropological research. Understanding this trend requires empirical as well as ethnographic insight regarding the relationship between developmental biology and social, cultural, nutritional, biological, and psychological variables. I applied a mixed-methods approach in order to investigate whether an aggregate of childhood experiences and circumstances predicts timing of pubertal development in female students at the University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College. Because memories are often recalled schematically rather than according to objectively accurate events, cultural consensus analysis was also performed to explore whether a widespread model causally linking high stress and advanced puberty may shape developmental narratives. Results suggested a significant and substantial association between greater childhood stress and earlier ages at menarche and first sexual intercourse. Results also indicated a salient model in which biological factors, rather than environmental conditions, are considered predominant causes of maturation. These findings represent the first valid approach to formulating an aggregate stress score that reliably predicts timing of developmental milestones. Conclusions also validate Life History Theory notions of early reproduction as an evolved adaptive strategy intended to maximize reproductive success amidst unreliable circumstances. This research promises to broaden knowledge regarding the factors driving maturation, the complexity and scope of pubertal plasticity, and the ways in which human health is grounded in biocultural, social, and psychological variables. Investigating premature menarche within a multifactorial perspective may lead to new insights regarding female biology and behavior, and with this, facilitate novel strategies for treatment and prevention.

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Cultural anthropology, Biology, Medicine