, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 233-265

Early stress predicts age at menarche and first birth, adult attachment, and expected lifespan

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Abstract

Life history theory suggests that in risky and uncertain environments the optimal reproductive strategy is to reproduce early in order to maximize the probability of leaving any descendants at all. The fact that early menarche facilitates early reproduction provides an adaptationist rationale for our first two hypotheses: that women who experience more risky and uncertain environments early in life would have (1) earlier menarche and (2) earlier first births than women who experience less stress at an early age. Attachment theory and research provide the rationale for our second two hypotheses: that the subjective early experience of risky and uncertain environments (insecurity) is (3) part of an evolved mechanism for entraining alternative reproductive strategies contingent on environmental risk and uncertainty and (4) reflected in expected lifespan. Evidence from our pilot study of 100 women attending antenatal clinics at a large metropolitan hospital is consistent with all four hypotheses: Women reporting more troubled family relations early in life had earlier menarche, earlier first birth, were more likely to identify with insecure adult attachment styles, and expected shorter lifespans. Multivariate analyses show that early stress directly affected age at menarche and first birth, affected adult attachment in interaction with expected lifespan, but had no effect on expected lifespan, where its original effect was taken over by interactions between age at menarche and adult attachment as well as age at first birth and adult attachment. We discuss our results in terms of the need to combine evolutionary and developmental perspectives and the relation between early stress in general and father absence in particular.

This work was supported by The University of Melbourne Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
James S. Chisholm is Professor in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia. He is an anthropologist whose interests lie in the fields of human behavioral biology, evolutionary ecology, life history theory, and parental investment theory, where he focuses on infant social-emotional development, the development of reproductive strategies, and the integration of evolutionary, developmental, and cultural psychology and public health.
Julie A. Quinlivan is Associate Professor in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Melbourne and Head of the Maternity Care Program at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne. Her interests are teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, child abuse prevention, and high-risk pregnancy.
Rodney W. Petersen is Senior Lecturer in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Melbourne and Senior Consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Royal Women’s Hospital and Sunshine Hospital in Melbourne. His interests are in psychosocial aspects of women’s health and cancer.
David A. Coall is a Ph.D. student in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia. His main interest lies in the application of evolutionary theory within an epidemiological framework. He is currently working on the synthesis of life history theory, parental investment theory, and parent-offspring conflict theory in exploring factors that influence variation in human birth weight and placental weight.