It seems that girls are experiencing puberty at a younger age than in the past.
As early as the 1990s, researchers began document that girls began to develop breasts around age 10, more than a year earlier than recorded in previous medical literature. The same study noted that black girls started puberty even earlier, around age 9 on average.
This study was not unique. Researchers began monitoring the trend over the following decades in countries around the world, and this body of research points to a global trend. In many countries, the age of puberty for girls appears to have decreased by around three months every decade since the 1970s. The same trend has been observed for boys, but less dramatically.
Early puberty in girls is associated with an increased risk of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other problems compared to those who reach puberty later. It has also been linked to some cancers if they start menstruating earlier than others.
A definitive answer as to why this happens is hard to pin down, but researchers have identified three factors that likely contribute to the problem: body weight, stress, and exposure to certain chemicals.
Obesity is a main factor, and this has been shown in various studies. One theory is that fat cells are known to produce a variety of hormones, some of which may trigger bodily processes that stimulate the onset of puberty. Fat cells aren’t inherently bad, and it’s part of a normal healthy development process, however, it can be a problem when girls accumulate high levels of body fat at an early age, but researchers believe it cannot be the full explanation. because many girls start puberty early without being overweight.
Another possibility could be chemicals. A 2009 study of nearly 1,000 young girls in Copenhagen found that the average age of obtaining breast tissue was much earlier in the 2006 cohort of girls compared to 1991. The 2006 cohort entered puberty over a year earlier than its 1991 counterparts.
The doctor behind this study speculated that chemicals could be part of the change. He said the girls with the earliest breast development in the study also had the highest level of phthalates. in their urine. Phthalates are found in many plastics and some hair products, and they’ve long been on researchers’ radar as potentially harmful.
Phthalates are part of a larger group of chemicals called “endocrine disruptors,” which can also impact hormones. Although various studies have looked into this, they have struggled to establish a definitive link between specific chemicals and precocious puberty.
There is preliminary evidence that girls who experience sexual abuse early in life may be at increased risk of earlier puberty, but establishing a causal link is difficult.
The researchers also identified a few other interesting correlations. For example, it is more common for a girl to have precocious puberty if her mother has a history of mood disorders or if she does not live with her biological father. Again, it is difficult to establish a causal link, but sustained stress may be the common factor.
A very interesting study that involves stress is an Italian study published in February. It looked at the number of children who presented with suspected precocious puberty to five pediatric endocrinology offices in Italy in 2020, compared to 2019. The study found that only 140 girls had symptoms of precocious puberty in 2019, up from 328 in 2020, meaning the number of girls with these symptoms more than doubled in 2020. Researchers have also linked confirmed precocious puberty in girls to a sedentary lifestyle as well as increased use of electronic devices.
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