Europe Catches Up On Early Puberty Trend

July 09, 2009 07:00 AM
by Colleen Brondou
In Europe and the United States, researchers are investigating why many girls are reaching puberty at earlier ages, a developmental trend putting preteens under social and emotional pressure.

Europe Investigates Early Onset of Female Puberty

Several studies in the U.S. have revealed an earlier onset of puberty in recent years; until now, studies in Europe have failed to demonstrate similar trends. However, a recent study of young girls in Denmark found that the average age of breast development has fallen a whole year in comparison to the girls studied in the early 1990s, from an average of 10.88 years to 9.86 years.

These findings, published in a recent issue of the journal Pediatrics, contribute to the growing evidence that the onset of puberty is quickening. One possible explanation is that
environmental exposure to chemicals that mimic estrogen is disrupting the function of the endocrine system in girls, bringing on puberty.

Although the study found significant changes in early breast development, the average age of menarche, when girls begin menstruating, did not show such variation. The average age of menstruation for the girls in the study was only three-and-a-half months earlier than the average age for the girls studied in the early 1990s. The finding suggests that even though the age of full maturation in girls has not shifted much in the past 40 years, the early onset of puberty means it lasts longer than it did for previous generations.

Background: Early-onset puberty research in the US

Many studies have been conducted in the U.S. to show that girls are physically maturing earlier, some as young as age seven; theories about the causes include diet, environmental factors and even societal pressures.

The Falling Age of Puberty
, a 2007 report by Sandra Steingraber commissioned by the Breast Cancer Fund, reviewed current research and provided a comprehensive look at why girls in the U.S. are maturing earlier. Steingraber believes that obesity and premature birth are leading factors, but also suspects that chemical endocrine disruptors may be a contributing factor. Endocrine disruptors are compounds commonly used in household products that chemically mimic natural hormones, and are suspected by some of disrupting body processes.

In a 2001 article, Diana Zuckerman, Executive Director of the National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families, proposed that exposure to pesticides, endocrine disruptors and phthalates, as well as obesity, are some of the possible causes for the phenomenon. Zuckerman also noted that in addition to a higher risk of breast cancer, early puberty “may put young girls at risk for emotional and social problems that could be devastating.”

Other researchers have presented more controversial theories for the earlier onset of puberty, such as the absence of fathers in many families and the media’s sexualization of children. Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens’ study of more than 17,000 girls suggested exposure to sexual stimuli as one of several factors at play in early onset puberty. According to Herman-Giddens, the media’s depiction of children as sexual beings is “a phenomenon that goes hand in hand with the actual earlier physical development of children, especially girls.”

Related Topic: "Treating" early puberty

Dealing with puberty is challenging for any teenager, but early puberty presents many additional worries for girls and their parents. Lucia Reed was seven years old when her period started. During a 2007 interview with The Daily Mail, Lucia described her social isolation and fear: “The scariest part was that because I looked older than I was, men would come on to me as though I was an adult, when actually I was 11,” she told The Daily Mail. “I felt completely alone and alienated, with this horrible secret,” Reed says. But social isolation isn’t the only problem brought on by early puberty. “By the time she was ten, men were trying to pick her up,” recalls Reed’s mother.

Since 1993, a series of drugs have been used to treat precocious puberty as a medical condition. Lupron, a hormone-suppressing drug first approved by the FDA for treatment of prostate cancer, was approved for treating early onset puberty in 1993. However, for many, using medication to delay sexual maturation sounds alarming. Jennifer Johnson, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Adolescent Health, warns that such intervention can “send a message to girls, and that message is: “We can’t trust you with what your body is doing.”

Reference: Puberty and precocious puberty


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