US Study Shows Girls Entering Puberty Are Getting Younger

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A US study shows girls entering puberty are getting younger and this change is not good health news. Early puberty puts girls at higher risk for behavioral problems as adolescents and other health issues.

Puberty age and breast development

The study, conducted by researchers at the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers, showed that, between 2004 and 2006, twice as many Caucasian girls showed signs of breast development at age 7 as compared to a decade ago.

About 15% of 1,239 girls studied showed the beginnings of breast development at age 7, according to an article in today's Pediatrics. One in 10 white girls, twice as many as in a 1997 study, showed breast growth by that age, as did 23% of black girls and 15% of Hispanic girls.

“Our analysis shows clearly that the white participants entered puberty earlier than we anticipated,” said Dr. Frank M. Biro, the first author of the study and the director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

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The new study doesn't explain why girls are developing earlier, but it did find heavier girls with a higher body-mass index were more likely than others to begin puberty early, says pediatrician Frank Biro, director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Though the study found that overweight girls were more likely to sprout breasts earlier, the lead researcher thinks chemicals may play a role, too. “We need to think about the stuff we’re exposing our bodies to and the bodies of our kids," he said, adding that he is doing follow-up testing on the girls' hormone levels and chemical exposure.

Early puberty has real concerns for health implications. Some studies also say that girls who had early menstruation, the standard measure of the start of puberty, may expose themselves longer in their lifetime to estrogen and progesterone, which can promote certain tumor growths.

The study also suggests that early breast growth increases the risk for cancer. “It’s certainly throwing up a warning flag,” Dr. Biro said. “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.”

Earlier maturation for all girls could have a number of adverse consequences, including lower self-esteem, less favorable body image, and greater rates of eating problems, depression, and suicide attempts, according earlier studies cited by Biro and his colleagues.

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