According to recent reports, puberty is coming at increasingly younger ages in U.S. girls. In fact, the authors of a current study discovered that puberty arrived as early as age 7 in some girls—a troubling trend that researchers fear is linked to the environment, genetics or other unknown factors.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, links the alarming trend of early puberty to rising levels of obesity, environmental chemicals found in everyday products such as makeup or water bottles, that mimic the female hormone, estrogen. Obesity is cited as a major factor since fat cells produce the hormone, which also triggers menstruation and breast development. However, the lead author of the study, Dr. Frank Biro at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, also suggests that the harmful chemical Bisphenol-A, which is found in plastic water and baby bottles, could also be to blame for early puberty. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration raised concerns in January 2010 about the widespread use of BPA in consumer products, but little has been done to regulate its use.
Dr. Biro and his colleagues took breast measurements—the earliest sign of puberty—of 1,239 girls, ages 6 to 9, living in the San Francisco Bay area, greater Cincinnati, and East Harlem in New York. Each age group was composed of 30% whites, blacks and Hispanics, and 5% Asians. Overall, at 7 years old, 10.4% of whites, 23.4% of blacks, and 14.9% of Hispanics were developing breasts. Notably, the figures for whites increased the most when compared to ten years ago.
There are far-reaching consequences for early puberty including an increased risk of breast cancer, depression and youth violence. Perhaps the most devastating psychological impact of early puberty, however, is being a young girl trapped inside an older-looking body. Young girls with immature minds are not yet prepped to deal with the sexual advances from men and boys, or to cope with their own hormones and sexual urges. Thus, Dr. Leslie Walker, who specializes in adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, suggests that pediatricians and parents can take appropriate steps to help their young patient or daughter adapt to the changes that accompany puberty. For example, Dr. Walker stresses that it is very important for young girls to understand that puberty is a natural process. Although puberty is occurring much younger ages than in the past, young girls just want to know that they’re normal. Naturally, there can be teasing from peers who aren’t developing at the same rate—both boys and girls—and this can be very difficult for a young girl who is going through puberty, developing breasts, and starting her menstrual cycle. In this same vein, parents also shouldn’t feel afraid of talking with their young daughter about advances from men, so that this doesn’t come as a surprise when it does occur. Overall, young girls need to feel like they are okay, and parents and doctors alike can help to ensure a positive self-esteem no matter what age puberty occurs.