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Some Girls Reaching Puberty Earlier

girls pubertyWill my 8-year-old need a bra soon? It’s a disturbing thought, but not entirely unlikely according to a new study which says that girls are more likely to start developing breasts by age 7 or 8 than they had in the past.

For years, similar research has prompted debates about whether girls are hitting puberty earlier and the reasons that may be the case.

One possible cause of early puberty is the increased rates of childhood obesity (body fat can produce sex hormones).  Personally, I’m more freaked out by the prospect that environmental chemicals could be speeding up the onset of puberty.

Aside from the psychological problems that can arise when a young girl of 7 or 8 has to suddenly deal with having breasts, there are real medical concerns. Some studies suggest that early puberty (early menstrual age) can slightly increase the risk of breast cancer.

The latest study, published in the journal Pediatrics, did not take menstrual age into consideration. But breast growth is also a sign of hormone exposure, which could also mean an increased risk of cancer.

The study examined around 1,200 6-8 year-old girls from three metropolitan areas. At age 7, 10.4 percent of white, 23.4 percent of black and 14.9 percent of Hispanic girls had enough breast development to be considered at the onset of puberty.At age 8, the figures jumped to 18.3 percent in whites, 42.9 percent in blacks and 30.9 percent in Hispanics.

 The percentages for blacks and whites have increased since the 1997 study that was one of the first to suggest that girls were hitting puberty earlier — which means that the age for puberty for girls seems to be getting lower. Since 1997, the childhood obesity epidemic has gotten more dire, so that is one possible explanation. It’s unclear to researchers why blacks and Hispanic girls appear to hit puberty earlier than whites. 

The authors acknowledged that the recent study was innately limited: they did not use a nationally representative sample of subjects, and did not examine development over time to account for environmental exposure, dietary differences or other factors related to race and ethnicity. In addition, some subjects had been selected because they were already in a risk group for early puberty. Researchers also didn’t look at the onset of menstruation, which could is a sign that puberty had already started.

It’s clear that more studies are needed to get to the bottom of this troubling problem. Dr. Frank M. Biro, the first author of the study and the director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said that he and his colleagues plan to study the girls’ hormone levels and lab tests to measure their exposure to various chemicals.

“It’s certainly throwing up a warning flag,” Dr. Biro told The New York Times. “I think we need to think about the stuff we’re exposing our bodies to and the bodies of our kids. This is a wake-up call, and I think we need to pay attention to it.”

I’m paying attention. Are you?

photo: flickr/hoyasmeg

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