The study found that high levels of adrenal androgens- hormones that rise during the early phase of puberty – were associated with increased mental health symptoms and peer relationship and behavioural problems.
It is the first time a large-scale population study has shown the impact of androgens in children, suggesting that the mid primary school years may be crucial in preventing the onset of mental health and behavioural problems in boys.
More than 1200 eight and nine year olds were recruited for the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS). Researchers collected saliva samples to test hormone levels and used parental reports to gather data about the child’s health and development.
Researchers found greater levels of the hormones dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEA-S) and testosterone were associated with higher levels of peer relationship problems, emotional symptoms and conduct issues in boys.
Findings from the study, which are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, may explain the rise in mental health symptoms in late childhood and suggest these years may be an important time for early intervention.
CATS is one of the first studies to answer questions about what changes are happening to children during the first phase of puberty. Researchers are focusing on these early hormonal surges, known as adrenarche or ‘adrenal puberty’, which they now understand to be a crucial time in setting the stage for later development.
Lead author Dr Lisa Mundy said the study findings challenge falsehoods around puberty and the onset of mental health problems.
“Many of us believe that puberty is implicated in the onset of mental health problems. However these results show that early hormonal changes, which take place before ‘puberty proper’ are linked with emotional and behavioural problems, particularly in boys.”
“This tells us that this is a sensitive period of development and might be an important time for early interventions to reduce issues like bullying and other peer problems, which are known to be linked with mental health problems.”
CATS aims to improve our understanding of the many influences on the health and emotional adjustment of children as they approach their teens. Information collected as part of the world-leading study will help to identify when and how to promote the best health and emotional adjustment in pre-teens.