Deardorff to investigate links between social adversity, puberty, and risk-taking behaviors among Latino youth

March 6, 2014

How does social adversity affect the timing of puberty? How do social adversity and early puberty influence risk-taking behavior in teens? 

Julianna Deardorff, assistant professor in the Maternal and Child Health program, recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to find out. 

Deardorff and her team (which will include an MPH student and a post-doctoral fellow) will work with a group of more than 600 youth and their parents in Salinas, Calif. The research will include analyzing pubertal hormones, stress hormones, and cultural factors that may exacerbate or protect against the negative effects of stressful circumstances.

“My goal has always been to understand how stress gets under the skin and can lead potentially to earlier and faster puberty and to sexual risk-taking behaviors in Latino youth who are growing up in adverse circumstances,” says Deardorff, who will start working with this migrant farming community in April. 

According to research, Latino youth are more likely to use drugs and alcohol at younger ages and more likely to engage in unprotected sex than other ethnic groups. Studies also show that puberty begins earlier in Latino adolescents than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Current research points to obesity as a key factor, but Deardorff believes a high BMI provides only a partial explanation. 

“We suspect that exposure to high levels of psychological and social adversity early in life is also a factor that influences pubertal timing,” she says. “And we know that those burdens of stress are disproportionately distributed among ethnic minorities in the United States.”

The youth participating in Deardorff’s studies are part of the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study, a longitudinal birth cohort study, led by Professor of Epidemiology Brenda Eskenazi, which examines chemicals and other factors in the environment and children’s health. The CHAMACOS study, which began in 1999, follows the principles of community-based participatory research and provides the community with ways to reduce chemical exposures to children and families.

“They have been giving back to the community, so in return Eskenazi’s team has a very strong commitment from the families to this research 14 years later,” notes Deardorff. 

Also working with this same cohort is Nina Holland, adjunct professor of environmental health sciences. Holland is looking at gene-chemical interactions and obesity in these youth. 

“It’s a nice marriage of studies that have different sets of aims but are highly complementary,” Deardorff says.

By Niema Jordan