Tuesday, June 21st 2011

C&V Shorts: Make the most of your time and energy

This is the first in a new series at Context and Variation where I will attempt to be more concise. As I continue along the Summer of the Pill series I want to make sure I still put some attention on other topics within biological anthropology. C&V shorts allows me to share something I find cool, in half the words I usually do.

What would you do if you knew you had eighty years to live? What if you knew you only had forty?

Life history theory is the idea that the timing of major life events is adaptive. That is, when to be born, when to wean, when to grow, and when to reproduce are dependent on selection pressures in the environment. The most important concept within life history theory, then, is that of tradeoffs, because when you time these events is based off how you want to allocate your resources. In your environment, would it be best to grow right now? Should you grow under the care of your mother, or should you be independent? Is it time to have a child? How about your second, or third, or fourth child?

For this reason, many people study life history transitions, which means the critical yet variable period when people move from one state to another: from growing to reproductive cycling, from cycling to gestating, gestating to lactating, even lactating back to cycling. And much of what governs these transitions has to do with energy, because energy is finite: energy you use towards one purpose, like growing, cannot be used for another, like reproducing. This is especially true in humans because we permanently transition from allocating to growth to reproduction at puberty, unlike other species that keep growing throughout their reproductive years.

But energy isn’t the only factor that enters into our physiological decision-making: time is also important. And as I hinted in the first paragraph, if you have some sense that your time on this earth will be short or long, you might make different decisions about when to do what.

Found here. Perhaps part of a
modern menarche ceremony?

A few years ago, Walker et al (2006) looked at all the available data on growth and development in small-scale societies – that means foragers and agrarian populations. They found that girls with a later age at menarche – that is the first menstrual period – are shorter in stature. If we consider only energy, this makes no sense! The later you wait to start reproducing should mean you had more time to grow, so why did Walker et al (2006) find the opposite?

The answer is timing. It turns out that mortality rates tell us something about growth and development: the higher the mortality in a population, the earlier their age at menarche and age at first reproduction. So, the higher your chances of being offed at any given moment, the more likely you are to favor reproduction over growth so you can move ahead with the whole reproductive success thing. So, constraints on time and energy affect our physiology differently, and mean we may have to make different predictions about life history transitions that are dependent on human societies. Predation or access to health care impact mortality, but so do homicide or war.

In 2011, McIntyre and Kacerosky performed a similar analysis, only this time they compared small-scale societies with industrialized ones – industrialized societies are those that are more urban, technology-driven, with greater access to modern health care, like the USA. Their analysis of small-scale societies confirmed Walker et al’s (2006) results.

But McIntyre and Kacerosky (2011) found the opposite relationship in industrialized societies: there, the later you hit menarche, the taller you were. And this makes sense if we think we can assume most industrialized populations have lower mortality than the foragers: within the industrialized pops, those who had the time and energy to grow big by holding off on menarche, did.

McIntyre and Kacerosky (2011) are hesitant to be full adaptationists in their paper, which I appreciate. So, they offer two hypotheses and suggestions for future testing. The first hypothesis falls in line with the life history theory described in this post, though their focus is more on parental investment than mortality. But still, environment, and access to time and energy, set life history trajectories for different populations. However they are also careful to point out a nonadaptive hypothesis: it could be that variability in stature is decreasing as heritability is increasing, meaning we are hitting up against biological constraints for size.

Genes and environment interact to produce phenotype, and this is something most people remember from high school biology. But sometimes it’s nice to peek under the hood and learn a little something about the life history mechanisms that are set into motion by this interaction. Early life events, perhaps even life events of our mothers and grandmothers, start our life history trajectories. Then tradeoffs at certain important transition periods nudge us a little further one way or another for the rest of our lives.


McIntyre MH, & Kacerosky PM (2011). Age and size at maturity in women: a norm of reaction? American journal of human biology : the official journal of the Human Biology Council, 23 (3), 305-12 PMID: 21484909

Walker, R., Gurven, M., Hill, K., Migliano, A., Chagnon, N., De Souza, R., Djurovic, G., Hames, R., Hurtado, A., Kaplan, H., Kramer, K., Oliver, W., Valeggia, C., & Yamauchi, T. (2006). Growth rates and life histories in twenty-two small-scale societies American Journal of Human Biology, 18 (3), 295-311 DOI: 10.1002/ajhb.20510

Thursday, June 9th 2011

Why it’s cool to be a scientist (especially an anthropologist)

From here.

This month, I am taking part in I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! which is a program that links up teenage students with scientists all over the world. We put together bios, answer questions, and do live chats with them. I am looking forward to the chance to share my vast knowledge of ladybusiness anthropology — and biological anthropology more generally — with students who are looking to find out whether science is boring or fun.

The way this project is set up is that, over the course of the few weeks we interact with the students, they vote us off one by one; the last person left wins 500 pounds to use towards a science outreach project. If I win, I hope to put these funds towards a project that will link young people together to share their stories of how their lives vary, and what impact that has on their biology. My hope is that this project will achieve two goals: first, to get young people to observe their own bodies and biology in order to be more aware of the science that surrounds them, and second, to show them that variation is what is normal. In the teenage years (and even earlier), there is often a lot of peer pressure to fit some culturally-sanctioned definition of “normal.” But what is normal, really, when we all come from such different places and lead such different lives? When we can directly observe how our lifestyle and environment impact our biology, it becomes clear that difference, not similarity, is the true normal.

As a companion piece to my bio, I would like to share why I think it’s cool to study and enjoy science.

Science is fun

Found here.

I first got really interested in science because of my AP Biology teacher. Mr. Cabral demonstrated his excitement and zest for biology every day. One day I got so caught up in what he was talking about — the potential impact of genetically modified corn on crops throughout the country — that as soon as I got home, I got on our AOL dial-up internet and started digging (this would have been the fall of 1996). I used AOL’s clunky search engine and managed to find several interesting websites that talked about Archer Daniels Midland. I printed it out on three ring binder paper — I think we were out of regular printer paper — and brought it to him the next day. I remember how motivated I was to learn about ADM, and then how that internal motivation was reinforced by how excited Mr. Cabral was by my find.

This was my first experience with the kind of detective work science can entail. Yes you do experiments, you do labwork or fieldwork, you collect samples or make things blow up or work with stuff that smells. And there is a sense in adventure to that. But another important piece of the work of science is setting out with a question, and doing the sleuthing necessary to find out the answer for yourself.

That will never stop being fun for me.

Science is logical
Fun is what got me started on science, the constant sense of discovery and the enjoyment of developing expertise where no one else has it. But what has kept me in science has been an increasing love, even total devotion, to the idea of the scientific method.

Castle and Beckett, from one of my
favorite detective shows, Castle.

The scientific method is another place where the metaphor of the detective is useful. A detective has a question: “Who dunnit?” And then, if she’s a good detective, she develops a hypothesis about who she thinks did it, then methodically tests her hypothesis. If she finds her hypothesis is not supported, she produces a new hypothesis to try again, based on what she has learned. If her hypothesis is supported, she likely will want more evidence to continue to better support her hypothesis.

The reason I love this method is that, if you are willing to really become a good detective, you can detect unintentional and intentional bias. Some conclusions in science, especially the older stuff, and especially stuff on humans that is related to sex or race, was biased by the preconceptions of who performed and interpreted the work. The entire field of women’s reproductive physiology is tainted by early, false observations by a twelfth century monk that women are not human, that they have a seven chambered uterus, that women can decide on the sex of their babies by lying down a certain way, and wicked women will choose to have girls (Rodnite Lemay 1992). Even research in the twentieth century indicated that the sweat of menstruating women makes babies die and flowers wilt (Bryant et al. 1977; Freeman et al. 1934; Macht 1924). And of course, none of these things are true.

I believe that reality of science always wins. We are constantly becoming more aware of implicit bias and honest mistakes, we are constantly developing new methodologies to test our questions. My students, or my students’ students, will probably find things wrong with my own work and modify or correct it some day. This is very exciting to me!

Science solves important problems
I am a biological anthropologist. That means that I am interested in human evolutionary biology, and in understanding the interaction of biology and culture in the production of a human being. I think we can all come up with problems science helps solve, from making cars and homes more energy efficient, to saving endangered species. Biological anthropology can help answer these from the perspective of human ancestry, evolution and behavior. For instance, it’s great that we are making cars more energy efficient, but how do we change usage patterns? How do we get people to drive less? Really, how do we get a species that evolved to consider short and medium term problems and be selfish, to think altruistically and really long term?

In my corner of the field, bio anthro can help answer the following (and more):

  • How does environment and lifestyle impact our hormones?
  • Why do some people have a harder time having babies than others?
  • What is the impact of our changing environment, to one where we are sitting around more and eating more, on our health?
  • Does psychological stress impact our physical health? Can sexism or racism have real effects on the body?
  • How does moving from one country to another change your hormones?
  • Is taking the pill good for you?
  • Does what you do as a pregnant woman really matter that much to the health of your baby?

And that’s just the beginning.

Anyone can love science
I want more people, and more different kinds of people, to do science. But I also just want more people to realize how exciting it is to read and learn science. Becoming an engaged science reader, even as someone who already is a scientist, has been a wonderful experience for me. I have developed an appreciation for insects, found out about variation in circadian rhythms, and fallen in love with rivers.

I have realized that there is a lot of great science out there, not just biological anthropology, and it’s all worth fighting for. I have taught a lot of non-science majors since becoming a professor – literally hundreds and hundreds. And when I talk to them, many of them explain that the reason they hate science is that someone made them feel stupid: a teacher, a fellow student, sometimes a relative. I’ve heard several explicit stories where a student was told by a teacher that they weren’t good at science. I’ve had students break down in tears as they describe the sexism and racism that has made them decide science wasn’t for them.

And so, because of the rudeness of another person, the oppression of a system, or a series of incidents that just become too much to bear, they turned away from one of the most logical, exciting, and natural ways of thinking about the world. And many began to dislike it, then mistrust it, then not believe anything they heard about it. And who can blame a young person for turning away from a field, if that is what they are up against?

Nothing, and no one, should turn people away from science, because anyone can love science. Even if you never take another class on it or pick up a single textbook, even if you don’t become a scientist or educator or writer or any of the many jobs where you can use science, you can revel in the beauty of a photograph, the stories of triumph over adversity, the excitement of discovery. You miss out on the simple human pleasure of satisfying curiosity about the natural world if you don’t read science. In addition to improving access and eliminating oppression so that more people can excel in science, we need to make it possible for people to just learn and love it.

One of my favorite things about being a scientist is that I get to hang out with other scientists. At conferences, other scientists present talks or posters to talk about their latest research. If you listen closely to these conversations, along with the jargon, and the statistics, and the graphs and tables and lightning-fast discussions of various technical methodologies, you will also hear people abruptly and delightedly exclaim: “Isn’t this just so cool?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Bryant, J., Heathcote, D., & Pickles, V. (1977). THE SEARCH FOR “MENOTOXIN” The Lancet, 309 (8014) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(77)92199-7
Freeman W, Looney JM, and Small RR. 1934. Studies on the phytotoxic index II. Menstrual toxin (“menotoxin”). Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 52(2):179-183.
Macht D. 1924. Influence of menotoxin on the coagulation of blood. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 24(3):213-220.
Rodnite Lemay H. 1992. Womens Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ de Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries: State University of New York Press.

Wednesday, April 20th 2011

AAPA symposium on Evolution through the Life Course: Why we shouldn’t prescribe hormonal contraception to twelve year olds

When Dr. Grażyna Jasieńska invited me to give a talk on my thoughts around adolescents and hormonal contraceptives as part of an invited symposium on “Evolution through the Life Course,” I thought it was going to be an embarrassing experience, because I would not be presenting the quantitative data more common at the American Association of Physical Anthropology meetings. But I can’t say no to Grażyna, who has served as a wonderful mentor and cheerleader for almost ten years. Besides, if I can rant on a blog, surely I can let myself rant in a talk every now and then.

What follows is a bloggy version of the talk I gave Thursday the 14th, at the meetings in Minneapolis. Writing this post will, I hope, help me begin to turn this into a manuscript. Normally I wouldn’t dare write something on a blog that I would eventually want to publish. However, this is a piece that would benefit enormously from the kinds of conversations that happen in the science blogosphere. Further, I hope to publish it as an opinion piece well-studded with evidence. I think that by sharing my early thoughts now, my later thoughts will be more sophisticated.

* * *

Variation in adolescent menstrual cycles, doctor-patient relationships, and why we shouldn’t prescribe hormonal contraceptives to twelve year olds

From Vihko and Apter (1984).

Vihko and Apter (1984) showed that there is variation in age at menarche, and that that variation tells us something about how long it should take an adolescent to start to achieve regular ovulatory cycles. The later your age at menarche, the longer you will experience irregular cycles. However, even in girls with ages at menarche twelve and under, it still took on average five years to achieve regular cycles. This indicates that, in adolescents, irregularity is in fact regular.

Lipson and Ellison (1992) have also looked at age-related variation in progesterone concentrations. Progesterone is the sex steroid hormone secreted by the ovary after ovulation, which is in the luteal phase. Luteal phase function is the one that seems to be the most variable within and between populations, and so progesterone is a great way to understand how female bodies vary. They found that those with the lowest hormone concentrations were on the extreme ends of their sample – 18-19 year olds, and 40-44 year olds and, as you might expect, hormone concentrations were higher as you moved towards the middle of that age range. So both younger and older women have low hormone concentrations relative to women in their reproductive prime, which is 25-35 years of age. But of course, this means that low hormone concentrations when you are in those early or late age ranges means that you are normal for your age.

From Lipson and Ellison (1992).

Now, the United States has the highest rate of unintended teen pregnancy among industrialized nations. So I can understand why there are so many papers, and such a great effort, to get young girls on hormonal contraception (Clark et al. 2004; Clark 2001; Gerschultz et al. 2007; Gupta et al. 2008; Krishnamoorthy et al. 2008; Ott et al. 2002; Roye 1998; Roye and Seals 2001; Sayegh et al. 2006; Zibners et al. 1999).

But I’ve noticed two things: first, that hormonal contraception is used imperfectly in this population, with some estimates that 10-15% of adolescents on hormonal contraception still get pregnant (Gupta et al. 2008). Second, discontinuation rates for hormonal contraception in young girls are high, with many girls complaining about side effects, particularly breakthrough bleeding (Clark et al. 2004; Gupta et al. 2008; Zibners et al. 1999). I have to admit some concern over the fact that many of the papers I read that mentioned these discontinuation rates and side effects were almost condescending in their tone. The implication was that the side effects weren’t a big deal.

One of the ways clinicians and sexual health educators are trying to improve hormonal contraceptive use in adolescents is to emphasize their off-label use as a “regulator” – that is, the pill can regulate your cycle, regulate your mood, regulate your skin. The idea is to emphasize the positive effects of hormonal contraception to combat the side effects young girls both worry about, and actually experience. This also tends to produce campaigns and commercials with images of idealized young women that young girls would want to model themselves after – skinny, confident, and of course very feminine.

From here

Despite the criticisms I’ve begun to name, there are substantial benefits to hormonal contraception in adult women. When women take hormonal contraception in adulthood, particularly in the 25-35 year range, they are very effective contraception. The pill also may reduce risk of reproductive cancers, though results are mixed (Collaborative Group 1996; Collaborative Group 2008; Kahlenborn et al. 2006; Marchbanks et al. 2002; Modan et al. 2001; Narod et al. 1998; Smith et al. 2003). And of course, off-label use to treat painful periods or premenstrual syndrome can be beneficial for many (Fraser and Kovacs 2003).

However, the benefits of hormonal contraception in adults seems to be limited to more industrialized populations. Bentley (1994; 1996) first raised these concerns. She discussed the possible genetic, ethnic and developmental differences between women that could produce variation in pharmacokinetics, which could in turn vastly change the experience and efficacy of hormonal contraception in a global context. Virginia Vitzthum and others have also shown that there are high discontinuation rates and complaints of breakthrough bleeding in rural Bolivian women on hormonal contraception (Vitzthum and Ringheim 2005; Vitzthum et al. 2001). Other studies have shown similar discontinuation rates and side effects in other non-industrial populations (de Oliveira D’Antona et al. 2009; Gubhaju 2009).

You might notice that the issues in non-industrial populations mirror what has been seen in industrial adolescent girls. This isn’t surprising, given that they also have in common fewer ovulatory cycles and lower hormone concentrations.

So, I worry about whether the clear benefits of hormonal contraception in adulthood can be applied to adolescent girls, some as young as eleven or twelve years old. With the imperfect administration and high discontinuation rates, they aren’t that great as contraception. But there are additional, physiological concerns. What are the effects of giving doses of hormones to young girls with newly developing hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axes? The variation I mentioned before, where irregularity is regular in adolescence, is because the feedback loop between the brain and the gonads is priming and developing in this period, and this takes time. The sensitivity of the feedback loop is being set. If we flood this feedback loop with extra hormone, does this alter its sensitivity? It is a question worth testing.

Further, if we flood this immature system that normally has irregular cycles and low hormones, are we increasing lifetime estrogen exposure? High lifetime estrogen exposure is a risk factor for breast cancer and other reproductive cancers. Is it possible that hormonal contraception in adolescence could have the opposite effect of hormonal contraception in adulthood? Again, we need to test this hypothesis.

Future work on this topic includes asking whether adolescent menstrual cycle variation is any different today than twenty to thirty years ago. The only data we have (at least that I know of) are from the aforementioned 1984 and 1992 papers, and maybe some derivative papers using the same datasets. But we all know there have been massive changes in body composition, diet and health in the last few decades that deserve consideration. So, this work needs to be re-done on a current population.

We also need to ask how adolescent reproductive functioning varies within and between populations. While this has been studied extensively in adult women, we don’t have a sense of adolescent population variation. This will give us a sense of what ecological variables produce variation not only in age at menarche, but in how long cycle irregularity persists and reproductive hormone concentrations.

Some additional, provocative, post-meeting thoughts

Bristol Palin. Image from here.

In this symposium, Karen Kramer delivered a beautiful paper just before mine on teen pregnancy, and I had some great conversation with session participants and attendees, that has further evolved my own thinking on this issue. I want to say something just a little provocative:

While I think teen pregnancy should be avoided, culturally we overstate its dangers and consequences because we have a real problem with young people reproducing. This can lead young girls to overlook potentially more serious issues like sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and cervical cancer, all of which girls and women are at risk for if they use only hormonal contraception and have otherwise unprotected sex.

Let me explain two important points here. First, in most industrialized nations we are not set up well to support young mothers because of the way families are isolated, yet social support is a strong predictor of birth weight, postpartum depression, and labor progression (Collins et al. 1993; Feldman et al. 2000; Turner et al. 1990). So there are very strong and obvious reasons why teen pregnancy and motherhood can be incredibly challenging in industrialized environments. I wonder sometimes if that lack of cultural support is related to a fear that more young girls will get pregnant if they feel they have permission to procreate. This is similar to the argument in favor of abstinence-only sex ed: if they don’t know their options, or are shamed into believing this option is the worst possible one, then of course they won’t make them. But adults aren’t rational. I’m unsure why we expect adolescents to be.

We also need to consider population variation in adolescence and pregnancy. Variation in age at first birth in traditional populations is quite wide, from sixteen to almost twenty six years of age (Walker et al. 2006). In more traditional populations you see a lot of allomothering and grandmothering to support first time mothers, who are often teenagers (Hawkes 2003; Hrdy 2009; Kramer 2005; Kramer 2008). So, support systems are built in, and it does not alter the trajectory of your life in the same way teen pregnancy does in an industrialized population.

This range of variation in age at first birth, and the fact that most of those young mothers do just fine, perhaps even end up with higher reproductive success, leads me to my second point: the physiological evidence against teen pregnancy might be overstated. In her talk, Karen discussed a paper of hers in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology that described the negative health outcomes of teen pregnancy (Kramer 2008). In it, she reviewed literature that suggests that when you control for lack of prenatal care, first pregnancy, and low socioeconomic status, the common assumption that pregnancy is harmful to teens is significantly weakened.

Further, in her own work with Pumé foragers in Venezuela, mothers under the age of fourteen were the only group to have greater infant mortality than the referent group of late reproducers (Kramer 2008). Yet when we teach young girls about their bodies, we tell them that their bodies are not equipped to have babies in their teens and that there are extreme consequences (in fact, I have said exactly this in the past). The reality is that those consequences are worst for very young teens, and may not be as significant in older teens.

Am I advocating teenagers get pregnant? Absolutely and unequivocally no. But I think they need access to correct information, not skewed information. This means telling them the truth about our uncertainties about the health implications for hormonal contraception in adolescence, it means educating them about the importance of barrier methods, and it means making sure they understand the health risks associated with unprotected sex.

This is a nuanced issue that requires nuanced thinking. Despite my concerns about adolescent hormone contraceptive use, there are problems with barrier methods as well, particularly when there may be a cultural bias against their use, or in situations when women cannot safely use contraception in an obvious way with their partner (Gupta et al. 2008). Again, what is important here is conveying correct information, so that each individual can weigh the pros and cons as they relate to her own context. This means it could be an excellent idea for some twelve year olds to be on hormonal contraception, and a terrible one for other girls through the age of twenty. It is going to have to be up to them.

I hope this post generates some thinking and some conversation, and I welcome people who might push me in a different direction than where I’m currently thinking. I am sharing this now, before putting it together as a manuscript, to provoke thoughts and comments.


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Bentley GR. 1996. Evidence for interpopulation variation in normal ovarian function and consequences for hormonal contraception. In: Rosetta LaM-T, C.G.N., editor. Variability in human fertility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p 46-65.

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Clark, L. (2001). Will the Pill Make Me Sterile? Addressing Reproductive Health Concerns and Strategies to Improve Adherence to Hormonal Contraceptive Regimens in Adolescent Girls Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 14 (4), 153-162 DOI: 10.1016/S1083-3188(01)00123-1

Collaborative group (1996). Breast cancer and hormonal contraceptives: collaborative reanalysis of individual data on 53 297 women with breast cancer and 100 239 women without breast cancer from 54 epidemiological studies The Lancet, 347 (9017), 1713-1727 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(96)90806-5

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Hrdy SB. 2009. Mothers and others: the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding: Belknap Press.

Kahlenborn, C., Modugno, F., Potter, D., & Severs, W. (2006). Oral Contraceptive Use as a Risk Factor for Premenopausal Breast Cancer: A Meta-analysis Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 81 (10), 1290-1302 DOI: 10.4065/81.10.1290

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Kramer KL (2008). Early sexual maturity among Pumé foragers of Venezuela: fitness implications of teen motherhood. American journal of physical anthropology, 136 (3), 338-50 PMID: 18386795

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Modan B, Hartge P, Hirsh-Yechezkel G, Chetrit A, Lubin F, Beller U, Ben-Baruch G, Fishman A, Menczer J, Struewing JP, Tucker MA, Wacholder S, & National Israel Ovarian Cancer Study Group (2001). Parity, oral contraceptives, and the risk of ovarian cancer among carriers and noncarriers of a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. The New England journal of medicine, 345 (4), 235-40 PMID: 11474660

Narod, S., Risch, H., Moslehi, R., Dørum, A., Neuhausen, S., Olsson, H., Provencher, D., Radice, P., Evans, G., Bishop, S., Brunet, J., Ponder, B., & Klijn, J. (1998). Oral Contraceptives and the Risk of Hereditary Ovarian Cancer New England Journal of Medicine, 339 (7), 424-428 DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199808133390702

Ott, M., Adler, N., Millstein, S., Tschann, J., & Ellen, J. (2002). The Trade-Off between Hormonal Contraceptives and Condoms among Adolescents Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 34 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3030227

ROYE, C. (1998). Condom use by hispanic and african-american adolescent girls who use hormonal contraception Journal of Adolescent Health, 23 (4), 205-211 DOI: 10.1016/S1054-139X(97)00264-4

Roye CF, & Seals B (2001). A qualitative assessment of condom use decisions by female adolescents who use hormonal contraception. The Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care : JANAC, 12 (6), 78-87 PMID: 11723916

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