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Teens who began puberty at an early age are more likely to experiment with cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana, researchers report.
The study included nearly 6,500 boys and girls, aged 11 to 17, who were asked about their substance use in the past three months. The participants also completed a questionnaire designed to determine when they began puberty.
The findings were published in the October issue of the journal Addiction.
Puberty typically begins between the ages of 9 and 10, but wide variation exists in its onset and how long it takes to complete puberty. The results from the study participants were in line with national estimates of puberty onset. For example, girls report developing earlier than boys and nonwhites report developing earlier than whites.
"We all go through puberty. We remember it being either an easy transition or a very difficult one," study author Jessica Duncan Cance, a public health researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a university news release.
Cance noted that much research has been devoted to the psychological and social factors that increase teens' risk of substance use, but relatively little is known about how the timing of the start of puberty could play a role.
"While puberty is often thought of as a solely biological process, our research has shown that pubertal development is a combination of biological, psychological and social processes that all likely interact to influence risk-taking behavior like substance use," Cance said.
"Our study suggests that being the first girl in the class to need a bra, for example, prompts or exacerbates existing psychological and social aspects that can, in turn, lead to substance use and other risky behaviors early in life," she explained.
Although the study found an association between earlier puberty and higher risk for substance use, it did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about underage drinking.