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Maternal Depression May Correlate With Daughter's Earlier Puberty

By Candace Hoffman
WebMD Health News

March 24, 2000 (Lake Worth, Fla.) -- A study from two researchers in New Zealand theorized that a mother's stress, mood disorders, or divorce may be related to their daughters' earlier puberty. When they looked at 87 girls and their mothers, 67 of whom had mood disorders, their theory seemed sound.

While the study, which appears in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development, shows a correlation between mothers with mood disorders and their daughters' earlier puberty, Bruce J. Ellis, PhD, one of the researchers, says that a direct cause and effect relationship cannot be shown.

"Both marital and family dysfunction and early pubertal timing in daughters may be caused by common underlying genetic factors," he tells WebMD. Ellis is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

The study only looked at maternal depression, family conflict, divorce and remarriage, and when puberty began. Other factors that are known to cause early puberty, such as genetics and nutrition, were not looked at.

Puberty is starting younger and younger with each generation, according to Hadine Joffe, MD, who is director of the Women's Center for Behavior Endocrinology at McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School. Joffe, who reviewed the study for WebMD, says the findings are an interesting evolutionary hypothesis.

The nature or nurture issue came up in the study when the authors noticed the correlation between the age of the daughter when the father left the household, and the exposure to either a stepfather or the mother's boyfriend. The researchers theorized that the influence of unrelated males on puberty could be due to pheromones. Pheromones are hormones that are thought to stimulate, through smell, sexual reactions in animals.

The pheromone theory goes along with a lot of recent interest in the sense of smell and its influence on behavior, says Arnold Licht, MD. Of course, he says, one has to be careful not to make broad associations that could have wide-range implications. More research needs to be done on the senses before this conclusion is reached, he says.

Both Joffe and Licht say that the one aspect of the study that may have relevance is the issue of maternal depression. While Ellis himself says that this study is simply observational and no clinical conclusions can be drawn, Joffe and Licht think that the issue of a mother's or any family member's depression having an effect on family dysfunction can be a real message.

"One shouldn't take home the message that depression in and of itself is going to cause huge disruption of this sort in their daughter, but I think that ideally the extent to which the child can be kept involved with the mother during her depression is important," Licht says. A therapist could act as a mediator to help the mother and daughter maintain a functional relationship.

"Depression can be as severe an emotional withdrawal as physical death can be, and it can have its impact on the child," he says.

And whether maternal depression can cause early onset of puberty will remain debatable, Joffe says, but "the fact that depression has effects on other family members is really important ... so it's a real argument for identifying [depression] and getting treatment."

Ellis says that the study's findings are not clinically applicable. "Until the findings have been replicated on other samples, it would not be advisable to use these data as a basis for clinical decisions," he says.

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