Author Archives: Christine Garrington

Girls growing up – questions of early puberty

The early onset of puberty in girls has been linked with better bone health in older women, but it is also associated with a host of negative outcomes including teenage pregnancy and serious ill health in mid-life. With girls over the last few decades starting their periods earlier and earlier, this is a real cause for concern. A better understanding is needed of who is affected and how if this trend is to be reversed and the long-term health of girls and women is to be secured. Researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have investigated whether a girl’s socioeconomic background or ethnicity are associated with early puberty and have looked in detail at more commonly supposed links with weight and stress. Yvonne Kelly explains more.

Sexual activity whilst still young, teenage pregnancy, mental health problems, heart disease and breast cancer later in life are just some of the things linked to early puberty in girls. Over the last few decades, girls have started their periods much earlier with the average age falling from puberty has age falling to 12.9 years in 2015.

This research is the first to look over time at whether and how a girl’s social and economic circumstances and her ethnicity might be linked to the early onset of puberty. We suspected that any link that did emerge would, most likely, be explained away by other factors such as being overweight or suffering from stress.

Using information on 5,839 girls from the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been tracking the lives of nearly 20,000 children born at or around the start of the century, it was possible to know, at age 11 whether they had started their period or not.

Details of their birth weight, ethnicity, family income when they were aged 5 and height and weight when they were 7 were also available. This rich information gathered across 11 years of the girls’ lives really enabled us to put together a detailed picture over time of how these factors come together to influence the early onset of puberty.

The girls’ mothers completed questionnaires any social or emotional problems their daughter might be facing, and their own mental health.

Puberty facts and figures

Nearly one in ten of the girls, a total of 550, had started their period at age 11, with girls from the poorest families twice as likely as their most well-off peers to have done so (14.1 per cent v 6.8 per cent). Those from the second poorest group were also nearly twice as likely to have started their period.

Indian, Bangladeshi and Black African girls were most likely to have started their period at age 11, with Indian girls three and a half times more likely than their White counterparts to have done so.

Other factors

On average, girls who were heavier at age 7 and suffered stress in early childhood were more likely to have begun menstruating. Those who had started their periods early also tended to have mothers with higher stress levels, were from single parent families, and tended to have had some social and emotional difficulties themselves.

However, even when we took all these things into account, girls from the poorest and second poorest groups were still one and a half times more likely to have started their periods early.

As far as ethnicity was concerned, income, excess body weight and stress accounted for part or all of the differences in most cases. Interestingly, though with most Indian girls coming from more advantaged backgrounds than their White peers, the likelihood of them having started their period was not explained after we took all the above factors into account.

Lived experiences

Our findings highlight the different lived experiences of ethnic minority groups in the UK: for example Indians are relatively advantaged whereas Pakistanis tend to be materially disadvantaged, Bangladeshis and Black Africans are materially and psychosocially disadvantaged and have a tendency to be overweight compared with the majority ethnic group. They also demonstrate the complex and potentially opposing factors at play for the onset of puberty.

All that considered, we can say with considerable confidence that socioeconomic and ethnic disparities are indeed apparent in the UK. Given the short and long term implications for early puberty on women’s health and well being, improving our understanding of these underlying processes could help identify opportunities for interventions with benefits right across the lifecourse, not just for the girls in our study, but for future generations.

It was also encouraging to note that in the decade or so covered by the data we used, there appears to have been no further decline in the average age that girls begin puberty.

Early puberty in 11-year-old girls: Millennium Cohort Study findings is research by Yvonne Kelly, Afshin Zilanawala, Amanda Sacker, Robert Hiatt andRussell Viner and is published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Photo credit: Afla

Young drinkers: using evidence to prevent alcohol abuse

Research by Child of our Time Editor Yvonne Kelly on 11 year-old drinking has caught the eye of Mentor, a charity working to build resilience among young people to prevent alcohol and drug misuse. The charity’s CEO, Michael O’Toole is now looking to collaborate with Yvonne in future research that will take a look a first look at data from the Millennium Cohort Study in the Autumn. In this episode of the Child of our Time podcast, Michael explains what Mentor is doing, why research based evidence is so important to the charity and how he hopes it will help prevent alcohol abuse among young children in the future.

Photo credit: Joseph Choi

 

Alcohol – who is drinking or drunk age 11?

Child of our Time editor, Professor Yvonne Kelly was among a group of experts looking at drinking behaviour across the life course this week. She presented her recent thought-provoking work on 11 year-olds and drinking at a seminar for policy makers and third sector workers on alcohol and health,  organised by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL.

The talk shared findings from her research on 11 year-olds in the Millennium Cohort Study who had ever drunk alcohol or been drunk. It also explored links with a range of family and social factors including other risky behaviours such as smoking and truancy.

Listen to her talk and see her slides.

Drunkenness and heavy drinking among 11 year olds – Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Annie Britton, Noriko Cable, Amanda Sacker and Richard G. Watt

What influences 11-year-olds to drink? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Alice Goisis, Amanda Sacker, Noriko Cable, Richard G Watt and Annie Britton and is published in BMC Public Health.

Mixed race kids: happier than we might think!

It’s been said and shown over the last few decades that mixed race and mixed ethnicity children tend not to do as well socially and emotionally as their non mixed peers. But new research casts a rather different light on the matter, showing that children both in the UK and US who are from mixed backgrounds are actually doing rather better.  James Nazroo from the University of Manchester has been looking at the issue with colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, UCL and discusses his surprising findings in our latest podcast episode.

Socioemotional wellbeing among mixed race/ethnicity children in the UK and US: Patterns and underlying mechanisms is due to be published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour. It is part of a wider programme of ESRC funded research led by Child of Our Time editor, Yvonne Kelly at ICLS.

Photo credit: Philippe Put

Being drunk – aged 11

Better understanding why very young people start drinking has been a recent focus for the team at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL. Research published earlier this year by the team showed that one in seven 11 year-olds said they had drunk alcohol and indicated strong ties with having friends who drank and also mums who drank. Now the researchers, led by Yvonne Kelly, have taken the work a step further to see which 11 year-olds are binge drinking or getting drunk. The work will be presented next month at an event  for those interested in the links between alcohol and health. 

Young people who drink heavily do worse at school, are more likely to engage in other risky behaviours such as smoking and taking drugs and die earlier than their non drinking peers. That’s been shown. But when we talk about young people, we are mostly referring to people in their late teens and early 20s.

There has been little research looking at drinking among very young adolescents, nor has much been done to look at what factors influence heavy drinking in our children and young people.

Closing the evidence gap

Our work using the Millennium Cohort Study has gone some way to closing that gap in the evidence we need to help us gain a clearer picture of just who is drinking alcohol at a very young age and what might be behind that.

Having looked at how widespread the problem might be, how family and friends fit into the picture and how 11 year-olds perceive the risks, we wanted to dig a little more deeply and focus more closely on the group of children who are binge drinking and getting drunk.

With a study as large as the Millennium Cohort Study, we have detailed information on more than 11,000 children. This means we can look at the individual and family factors connected to the issue in a meaningful and robust way.

It was reassuring to find that only 1.2 per cent (around 120) of 11 year-olds in the study reported having been drunk, with 0.6 per cent (60) of them saying they had drunk 5 or more alcoholic drinks in a single episode.

Many would argue though, that, given the serious health consequences associated with drinking at a young age, the fact that one in every hundred of UK 11 year-olds has been drunk at some point is still a matter of considerable concern.

Who is drunk at 11?

So who amongst our 11 year-old children is getting drunk? Our analysis showed that boys were twice as likely as girls to report being drunk, as were children with social and emotional problems. Truanting children were six times more likely and smokers 15 times more likely to report heavy drinking.

Interesting to us was the fact that neither mum’s nor dad’s drinking seemed to have any influence here. This was interesting in its own right, but also because our earlier research showed quite a strong link between 11 year-olds who drank any alcohol at all and mums who drank moderately or heavily. Heavy drinking was, however, reported by children who said they did not have a close relationship with their mum.

A link that did stay strong as we dug further into this question of who drinks heavily and gets drunk, was that with friends who drank. In other words, children who had friends who drank alcohol were 5 times more likely to get drunk themselves than those children who did not have drinking friends.

Perception of risk

The children we looked at were considerably less likely to get drunk if they believed strongly that drinking 1-2 alcoholic drinks each day could be harmful. So, a heightened perception of the potential harms of drinking alcohol were key here.

Our findings seem to mirror those of a recent school-based survey of 11-13 year olds in the UK, which reported 0.4 per cent had binge drunk. They also seem to point to the fact that heavy drinking in this age group is most likely to occur in peer group settings.

As the Millennium Cohort Study continues to track these children in years to come, we will gain an even clearer understanding of the consequences of heavy drinking at such a young age.

For all those concerned with the health and wellbeing of children today and in the future, there are some pointers here about areas for focus in tackling the problem including helping children understand the potential harms and empowering them to say no to alcohol regardless of any putative benefits they or their friends might perceive.

Request an invitation to the Alcohol and Health policy seminar which takes place on June 21, 2016.

Photo credit: Thom Sanders

 

 

Born in Bradford

Born in Bradford is a fascinating child health development project following the lives of thousands of children in the city. It hopes to find out more about the causes of childhood illness by studying children from all cultures and backgrounds as their lives unfold.

In this Child of our Time Podcast episode, one of the project’s lead researchers, Professor Kate Pickett from the University of York, explains more about the study, what’s in it that researchers can use, what  it’s found so far and what we can expect to come out of it in the future.

Photo credit: Tim Green

A bedtime story

Reading is key to giving children the best possible start in life. That’s what Child of our Time Editor Professor Yvonne Kelly will be telling representatives of the Swedish Government and European Commission today when she delivers the key note presentation at a seminar highlighting the importance and benefits of early interventions in children’s lives.

The seminar in Brussels has been organised by the City of Gothenburg in Sweden as part of its efforts to achieve the political goal of becoming an equal city and of its commitment to reduce inequalities.

Yvonne will be sharing research by herself and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies looking at factors associated with children’s poor verbal skills and behaviour problems. The research shows the links between regular bedtimes and reading with children and better outcomes for them in terms of behaviour and how well they get on at school.

Organisers of the event hope their efforts will encourage other cities in Europe to join them in their ambition to create health equality and a good start in life for all.

Photo credit: Lars Plougmann

Giving children a better start

Child of our Time Editor, Yvonne Kelly will today be discussing why poorer children are more likely to be obese than their better off peers at a Big Lottery Fund event looking at how to give young children a better start in life.

She will be sharing recent research from the team at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL looking at patterns of obesity in  young children using data from the Millennium Cohort Study.

The research finds that children from poorer backgrounds are the most likely to be obese and that the inequalities between richer and poorer children increase over time (between the ages of 5 and 11).

The research also identifies a number of other important factors associated with childhood obesity including smoking during pregnancy, mother’s obesity, skipping breakfast and irregular bedtimes.

The event, A Better Start ‘Focus on Diet and Nutrition is part of a programme of evaluation of the Lottery Funded ‘A Better Start’ initiative which aims to improve the life chances of babies and very young children by delivering a significant increase in the use of preventative approaches in pregnancy and first three years of life.

Yvonne is one of a group of experts and innovators in the field of child health and development to be invited to participate in the first of the initiative’s Learning and Development events. Other speakers include Eustace de Sousa, the lead for children, young people and families at Public Health England and Michael Hallsworth, director for Health at the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, Chris Cuthbert, Director of the Big Lottery Development Fund and Celia Supiah, CEO of the charity Parents 1st.

Changing behaviour and mixed ethnicity

The number of mixed ethnicity children born in the UK is growing. Research to date has shown that coming from a mixed ethnicity as opposed to a non mixed background has no impact on the likelihood of a child having behaviour problems. But a new report from a team at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL and just published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood journal, tells a different story, as its lead author Afshin Zilanawala explains.

It’s known that children from an ethnic minority background in the UK tend to have poorer health and to be disadvantaged in a range of other ways, but there has been hardly any research on children of mixed ethnicity, particularly when it comes to looking at their behaviour.

What little research has been done has been constrained by a lack of data and the need to look at broad or ‘catch-all’ ethnic groups in order to have sufficient numbers to examine.

Behaviour problems and poor outcomes

Given that children’s behaviour problems have been linked to poor academic achievement and lower levels of wellbeing in adult life, it’s important to try to get to grips with the sorts of things that might influence that early behaviour.

One study that looked at mixed ethnic differences in the behaviour problems of 3 year-olds found no link. A London study looking at mixed Black Caribbean/White 11-13 year-olds found no differences between them and their White peers.

Both studies looked at the children at a point in time, so there was no chance to look at any changes in behaviour over time. But our research shows something quite different.

Using the Millennium Cohort Study, we were able to look at a group of more than 16,000 children’s behaviour from when they were 3 through till when they had turned 11 years-old.

A range of questions about peer problems, challenging behaviour, hyperactivity and emotional problems were answered by the main respondent (usually the child’s mother) and from those responses, we were able to create an overall score (TDS) to represent the level of behavioural problems the child exhibited.

Mixed ethnicity and behaviour

Interestingly, at age 3, most mixed ethnicity children had fewer problem behaviours compared with their non mixed counterparts. White mixed, Indian mixed, Pakistani mixed and Bangladeshi mixed had fewer problems than their non mixed peers.

There was no difference, however, between mixed Black Caribbean children and their non mixed counterparts and the differences for Black African mixed and non mixed children were very small.

COOT-mixedage3

White mixed, Pakistani mixed, and Bangladeshi mixed children experienced increases in problem behaviours compared with their non-mixed counterparts, notably after age 7.

By age 11, White mixed, Indian mixed and Black African mixed children had fewer problems than non mixed, but Pakistani mixed, Bangladeshi mixed and Black Caribbean mixed children have more problems than children from a non mixed background.

Coot-mixed11Identity crisis as children get older?

What do we make of all this? As our mixed ethnicity children get older, is there some sort of identity crisis, both social and personal that is triggering a change in behavior? The behavior problems of the mixed 11 year-old children in our study could reflect children’s struggle to reconcile their families’ heritage and culture and their personal identity formation.

As children spend more time in school, they are less influenced by their home environments and have more interactions with peers and friends, all of which could be playing a role in the behavioral difficulties some mixed ethnicity children are experiencing.

The fact that mixed relationships are more common among Black Caribbeans compared with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis could explain why there are no behaviour differences between Black Caribbean mixed and non mixed children, whilst differences do exist between the mixed and non mixed South Asian groups.

In other words, it could be that there is less strain and anxiety in mixed partnerships when those types of interethnic relationships are more common.

It would be interesting to dig further into all of this by taking into consideration school, psychosocial and socio-demographic factors, all of which could be at play here.

Mixed ethnicity and behavioural problems in the Millennium Cohort Study is research by Afshin Zilanawala, Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly. It is published in Archives of Childhood Disease.

Racism, mixed race and child health

Child of Our Time Editor, Professor Yvonne Kelly has been outlining the impacts of racism on the health and development of children in her keynote talk at a workshop hosted by the Institute for Economic Analysis of Decision Making.

Professor Kelly, who is based at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL, has led a major programme of research looking at the role that ethnicity plays in disparities in child health and behaviour and she and her team have published a range of research from the project.

In today’s talk, she shared some of the key findings from the research around the different outcomes for children from various ethnic backgrounds, including their:

  • birthweight
  • physical development
  • obesity
  • early onset of puberty
  • mother and teacher reports of challenging behaviour
  • verbal skills

The talk also covered the frequency of racist attacks on different groups and their impact on children’s physical and mental health. Brand new research focusing specifically on mixed ethnicity children and their behaviour was also included.

Professor Kelly commented:

“Our research shows clearly that direct and indirect experiences of racism can negatively influence a child’s development and health – whether it be via their access to resources tor the increased likelihood that they will take up unhealthy behaviours.”

She added:

“It’s never too late to prevent disease in childhood or later years. Our research shows that racism is a key consideration for all those seeking to achieve that; policy makers, practitioners and the wider public alike.”