Early menarche tends to be preceded by rapid infancy weight gain and is associated with increased childhood and adult obesity risk. As age at menarche is a heritable trait, we hypothesised that age at menarche in the mother may in turn predict her children's early growth and obesity risk.
Methods and Findings
We tested associations between mother's age at menarche, mother's adult body size and obesity risk, and her children's growth and obesity risk in 6,009 children from the UK population-based Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) birth cohort who had growth and fat mass at age 9 y measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. A subgroup of 914 children also had detailed infancy and childhood growth data. In the mothers, earlier menarche was associated with shorter adult height (by 0.64 cm/y), increased weight (0.92 kg/y), and body mass index (BMI, 0.51 kg/m2/y; all p < 0.001). In contrast, in her children, earlier mother's menarche predicted taller height at 9 y (by 0.41 cm/y) and greater weight (0.80 kg/y), BMI (0.29 kg/m2/y), and fat mass index (0.22 kg/m2/year; all p < 0.001). Children in the earliest mother's menarche quintile (≤11 y) were more obese than the oldest quintile (≥15 y) (OR, 2.15, 95% CI 1.46 to 3.17; p < 0.001, adjusted for mother's education and BMI). In the subgroup, children in the earliest quintile showed faster gains in weight (p < 0.001) and height (p < 0.001) only from birth to 2 y, but not from 2 to 9 y (p = 0.3–0.8).
Earlier age at menarche may be a transgenerational marker of a faster growth tempo, characterised by rapid weight gain and growth, particularly during infancy, and leading to taller childhood stature, but likely earlier maturation and therefore shorter adult stature. This growth pattern confers increased childhood and adult obesity risks.
Earlier age at menarche may be a transgenerational marker of faster growth, particularly during infancy, leading to taller childhood stature but earlier maturation and hence shorter adult stature.
Childhood obesity is a rapidly growing problem. Twenty-five years ago, overweight children were rare. Now, 155 million of the world's children are overweight and 30–45 million are obese. Overweight and obese children—those having a higher than average body mass index (BMI; weight divided by height squared) for their age and sex—are at increased risk of becoming obese adults. Such people are more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems than lean people. Many factors are involved in the burgeoning size of children. Parental obesity, for example, predisposes children to being overweight. In part, this is because parents influence the eating habits of their offspring and the amount of exercise they do. In addition, though, children inherit genetic factors from their parents that make them more likely to put on weight.
Why Was This Study Done?
To prevent childhood obesity, health care professionals need ways to predict which infants are likely to become obese so that they can give parents advice on controlling their children's weight. In girls, early menarche (the start of menstruation) is associated with an increased risk of childhood and adult obesity and tends to be preceded by rapid weight gain in the first two years of life. Because age at menarche is inherited, the researchers in this study have investigated whether mothers' age at menarche predicts rapid growth in infancy and childhood obesity in their offspring using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). In 1991–1992, this study recruited nearly 14,000 children born in Bristol, UK. Since then, the children have been regularly examined to investigate how their environment and genetic inheritance interact to affect their health.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers measured the growth and fat mass of 6,009 children from ALSPAC at 9 years of age. For 914 of these children, the researchers had detailed data on their growth during infancy and early childhood. They then looked for any associations between the mother's age at menarche (as recalled during pregnancy), mother's adult body size, and the children's growth and obesity risk. In the mothers, earlier menarche was associated with shorter adult height and increased weight and BMI. In the children, those whose mothers had earlier menarche were taller and heavier than those whose mothers had a later menarche. They also had a higher BMI and more body fat. The children whose mothers had their first period before they were 11 were twice as likely to be obese as those whose mothers did not menstruate until they were 15 or older. Finally, for the children with detailed early growth data, those whose mothers had the earliest menarche had faster weight and height gains in the first two years of life (but not in the next seven years) than those whose mothers had the latest menarche.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that earlier mother's menarche predicts a faster growth tempo (the speed at which an individual reaches their adult height) in their offspring, which is characterized by rapid weight and height gain during infancy. This faster growth tempo leads to taller childhood stature, earlier sexual maturity, and—because age at puberty determines adult height—shorter adult stature. An inherited growth pattern like this, the researchers write, confers an increased risk of childhood and adult obesity. As with all studies that look for associations between different measurements, these findings will be affected by the accuracy of the measurements—for example, how well the mothers recalled their age at menarche. Furthermore, because puberty, particularly in girls, is associated with an increase in body fat, a high BMI at age nine might indicate imminent puberty rather than a risk of long-standing obesity—further follow-up studies will clarify this point. Nevertheless, the current findings provide a new factor—earlier mother's menarche—that could help health care professionals identify which infants require early growth monitoring to avoid later obesity.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040132.
The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children has a description of the study and results to date
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on overweight and obesity (in English and Spanish)
US Department of Health and Human Services's program, Smallstep Kids, is an interactive site for children about healthy eating (in English and Spanish)
The International Obesity Taskforce has information on obesity and its prevention
The World Heart Federation's Global Prevention Alliance provides details of international efforts to halt the obesity epidemic and its associated chronic diseases
The Child Growth Foundation has information on childhood growth and its measurement