To our knowledge, the present study is the first to investigate the association between the family life environment and age at menarche in Mexican-American girls. Overall, we found a significant relation between a cohesive and/or conflict-prone family life environment, single-parenting, and the risk of early age at menarche. We also found a very strong association between age at menarche and smoking experimentation. These findings are consistent with prior studies but to our knowledge have not been previously reported among Mexican Americans (8
The mean age at menarche of 11.54 years in our population was slightly younger than in previous reports of nationally representative samples of Mexican-American girls (1
). This lower age at menarche could be due to the higher proportion of overweight/obese girls in our sample or the fact that girls in our study matured earlier than their national counterparts. Nevertheless, these findings have implications for the declining trend in age at menarche in Mexican Americans, and more studies are needed to confirm the higher rate of overweight/obesity and an earlier age at menarche in Mexican-American girls.
We found no significant association between the selected indicators of socioeconomic status and age at menarche. Although previous studies have reported inconsistent findings, our findings for educational level, but not household income, were consistent with some of the more robust studies of larger sample size (20
). Because fathers were excluded from our study, we were unable to evaluate the effect of paternal educational level on age at menarche. Additionally, given that our study participants were members of low-income households, the homogeneity of our population might not have allowed us to detect significant differences by level of other socioeconomic status indicators, including home ownership.
Studies of non-Mexican-American populations have shown similar associations between maternal marital status (single parenting) and daughter's age at menarche (23
). In general, marital status has been reported to be a measure of early life stability that can potentially affect the age and rate at which girls start their reproductive maturation (9
). Thus, our results were consistent with those of studies that evaluated the role of early family life experience, such as father's absence or family disruption, on age at menarche. In a recent study by Saxbe and Repetti (22
), fathers and mothers who reported marital conflict were more likely to have a daughter who started menarche at an earlier age than were those who reported no such conflict. However, future research should place more focus on not only the presence of the father but also the quality of the marital relationship.
On the basis of responses to the FLQ, we found that girls who perceived their family environment as more cohesive and/or less conflict-prone were less likely to experience an earlier age at menarche than were girls who did not. These findings were consistent with the evolutionary theory of socialization by Belsky et al. (9
), which states that adverse early rearing environment and lack of parental investment can serve as stressors that have the potential to alter or accelerate pubertal events. In contrast to other studies, our findings were based on the girls’ perception of their family environment and hence provided a different, more relevant point of view (20
). However, we could not establish whether these perceptions were indicative of early life experiences or more immediate ones.
Previous studies have reported a traditional paternal-oriented culture in Mexican-American families (33
); however, limited data are available regarding Mexican-American fathers’ involvement and communication dynamics with their daughters during the early years of life. In our focus-group research, we found that when both parents were present, the fathers observed and shared their views with the mothers, who played a more active role in engaging and communicating with their daughters about pubertal maturation (34
). Although single widowed fathers in the focus groups did indicate playing a more progressive role in their daughters’ lives through direct involvement and communication about growth and development, we lacked data on information about communication style or early life dynamics in households with mothers as single parents (34
). Such information could help contextualize the role and/or dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship and age at menarche.
Although the present study is the first to assess the role of psychosocial factors on age of menarche in a population-based study of Mexican-American girls, it is not without limitations. Our measurement of family disruption or father's absence was based on marital status, which does not fully describe whether a mother is married to the child's father or someone else; however, other studies have shown that male presence, irrespective of the biologic relationship, tends to protect against an earlier age at menarche (24
Although the subscales on the FLQ were demonstrated to have high reliability in the European population in which the measure was developed (23
), with the exception of the cohesive subscale, we obtained a moderately low reliability in our Mexican-American population. Accordingly, it is possible that the low reliability of the subscales contributed to the lack of association between the subscales and early age at menarche. Future studies should focus on validating these measurements in a Mexican-American population. Finally, our sample size was limited when assessing the role of earlier age at menarche on susceptibility to or experimentation with smoking; thus, a larger sample size may be needed to confirm our findings.
Menarche is an important milestone for adolescent girls, and early age at menarche is associated with several short- and long-term adverse outcomes, such as obesity and premenopausal breast cancer (14
). To date, there has been limited research in Mexican-American girls regarding the role of psychosocial factors in age at menarche and subsequent sequelae; therefore, our study provides important information regarding the role of family life environment and family structure (marital status) on age at menarche in Mexican-American girls. Although additional research is needed to corroborate our findings, awareness of the impact of the family life environment, as well as fathers’ absence during the early years, should be emphasized when addressing factors contributing to early age at menarche.