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US Girls Hitting Puberty At Earlier Age

August 9, 2010

According to new research, U.S. girls may be hitting puberty at earlier ages.

Dr. Frank Biro of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, who led the study, said the study suggests earlier development than what was reported during a 1997 study. 

Biro’s team said that girls who hit puberty earlier are more likely to engage in risky behavior and might be at a higher risk for breast cancer.

“This could represent a real trend,” Dr. Joyce Lee, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Michigan who was not involved with the new research, told Reuters Health.

They say that doctors are still not sure what is causing girls to develop at earlier ages, but rising obesity rates may be the culprit.

The researchers examined about 1,200 girls at ages 7 and 8 in Cincinnati, New York and San Francisco.  The team used a standard measure of breast development to determine which girls had started puberty.

Compared to the 1997 findings, girls in the current study were more developed at a younger age.  There were also large differences in development based on race.

The researchers said about 10 percent of white girls and 23 percent of black girls started developing breast at age 7, compared to 5 percent of white girls and 15 percent of black girls in 1997.

Eighteen percent of white girls and 43 percent of black girls were entering puberty at age eight, which is an increase from about 11 percent of white girls from 1997, but the same as black girls in that year.

The study, which was published in Pediatrics, suggests that being overweight makes girls more likely to enter puberty at an earlier age. 

The researchers found that girls with a higher body mass index (BMI) at ages 7 and 8 were more likely to be developed than their peers that were thinner.

The authors said that their study population does not necessarily represent what is happening in all U.S. girls.  However, they are continuing to follow the girls in the study to see when the rest of them hit puberty.

Biro said that rising rates of obesity could be a major reason why girls seem to be developing faster than they did 13 years ago.

“We’re on the opposite side of an increase in BMI that has been seen in this country and in other countries,” he told Reuters Health.

Lee, of the University of Michigan, said that researchers know that heavier girls are more likely to enter puberty early.  She said that could be because overweight people have more of a hormone known to be linked to development, but it could also be because of the actual nutrients girls get from their diet.

Lee and Biro said doctors are worried about the psychological and physical health of girls who hit puberty at a young age.

“We’re on the opposite side of an increase in BMI that has been seen in this country and in other countries,” he told Reuters Health.

Women that spend more of their lives menstruating are at a higher risk for breast cancer.

Biro said that there are things families can do to minimize the possible risk of early puberty in young daughters, such as eating more fruits and vegetables and eating together as a family.

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