The increased calorie intake and weight gain of young girls in the United States may be causing young girls to begin puberty earlier than girls just a century ago, which could lead to increased health risks for these girls in their later years, say medical experts.
About 16% of US girls enter puberty by the age of 7, and about 30% by the age of 8, according to a study published on May 21, 2010 in the journal Pediatrics. The study determined that the number of girls entering puberty, as defined by breast development, at these early ages has increased substantially between 1997 and 2010. Girls who mature faster have higher risks for some serious illnesses, including breast cancer and heart disease, say a group of British scientists in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
The medical term for early onset puberty is precocious puberty. According to the U.S. Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, precocious puberty currently affects 1 in 5,000 children and is 10 times more common in girls. Statistics indicate that girls in the US are maturing at an earlier age than they did 30 years ago, and the number of girls with diagnosed precocious puberty is rising.
"I didn't start developing breasts until i was 12 years old,” says Angela Henke, a mother born on February 16, 1972. “But my daughter who was born on March 25, 1998, started developing breasts when she was 7 years old."
In the 1700s, girls didn’t start to menstruate until they were 17 or 18, says Dr. Luigi Garibaldi, professor of pediatrics and clinical director of pediatric endocrinology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. That had a lot to do with malnutrition. The assumption is that the steady decline in age since then has to do with more abundant food, says Garibaldi.
Could food additives in meat be a factor in causing early onset puberty, as some suggest? Garibaldi says, "No. But increased calories and excessive weight gain may have something to do with it."
There are many ways girls can be affected by precocious puberty in their later lives. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, growth in height usually starts to slow down for girls during puberty. So girls who hit it too early may not reach the same stature as the girls who grow taller and go through puberty at the normal ages. Also, girls starting their period earlier than their peers might be cast out by them, because they are experiencing abnormal development that their peers don't understand. Their classmates are also likely to notice and point out the changes, which may lead to the girl being made fun of and teased.
According to Garibaldi, some other physical and psychological effects on a girl are "early physical and bone maturation" and "frequently parental concern, embarrassment for the affected girls."
“Just because a girl has matured physically, doesn’t mean she’s socially or psychologically mature,” says Dr. Frank Biro, director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
According to the University of Michigan Health System, when girls enter in to puberty too early they may start dating and engaging in sexual activity earlier, and may possibly even get married earlier than their classmates. These young women also may have behavior issues and a higher risk for suicide and substance abuse.
In a 2010 study co-funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Cancer Institute, Drs. Frank Biro and Mary Wolff looked at several studies and found a significant association between people with precocious puberty and an increased risk of developing breast cancer. They think that this increased risk may be because the girl is exposed to female hormones for an extended amount of time in their life and is susceptible to developing breast tissue quickly due to environmental exposures.
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Garibaldi has some advice for parents shopping for food for their families. He says "They should try to eat healthy, avoid high-fat, high sugar items, limit red meats, include fiber /vegetables/fruit in the diet, avoid excess calories. This is easier said than done.” Alex Henke
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