Early Puberty in Girls: Newest Causes & Risks

Sheri Reed

bra Justice plaidEarly-onset puberty, otherwise known as "precocious puberty" in American girls is in the news again, this time a new study finds that girls are developing breasts as early as age 7 or 8. Yikes!

The suspected causes of early puberty are outlined in the new study published today, and the physical and psychological risks for these young girls are equally concerning.

The newest research "Pubertal Assessment Method and Baseline Characteristics in a Mixed Longitudinal Study of Girls" was released in the journal Pediatrics today.

Here's a summary of the study findings.

What did this new research on girls and early puberty find?

In the study, the breast development in 1,239 girls, ages 6 to 8, was evaluated, as a gauge for the onset of puberty.

By 7 years old, 23 percent of the black girls studied, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, and 10 percent of white girls had enough breast development to meet the criteria for puberty onset. These numbers show an increase over those found in a 1997 study, which could mean puberty is beginning even earlier and earlier more often.

On average, black and Hispanic girls continue to develop faster than white girls; however, white girls saw the most rapid increase since the earlier study.

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

What are the suspected causes of early puberty in girls?

Obesity: The increased obesity rates are believed to play a key role in early puberty since body fat can produce sex hormones.

Environmental effects: Many researchers also suspect that environmental chemicals that mimic the effects of estrogen -- including pesticides and endocrine-disrupting chemicals like bisphenol A, commonly found in plastics, and phthalates -- may be speeding up puberty.

"It’s certainly throwing up a warning flag," Dr. Biro also told the NYT. "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."

What are the biggest risks with early puberty in girls?

Physical: Earlier puberty can amount to a slight increase in breast cancer risk. This is most likely due to the fact that earlier first menstruation means a longer lifetime exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can feed some tumors.

Social and emotional: Early physical development in girls has been linked with poor self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, alcohol and cigarette use, and earlier sexual maturity and activity.

"If an 11- or 12-year-old girl looks like she's 16, people will interact with her as if she were 16," Dr. Biro told CNN. "Early maturation increases the rate of risk-taking behaviors and lowers academic performance. It doesn't mean it's going to happen, but it could."

The study was funded by government grants at hospitals that are part of the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers, a group formed in 2003 to study possible links between breast cancer and environmental exposures.

Do these newest findings about even earlier puberty in girls concern you? What do you think is going on with our young girls?


Image via Justice

Read More