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Children's Health

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Overweight Linked to Early Puberty

3-Year-Old Girls More Likely to Begin Puberty Early If Overweight, at Risk of Overweight
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 5, 2007 -- Young girls are getting heavier, and they also appear to be entering puberty earlier than even 20 years ago. Now a new study provides some of the best evidence yet that the two trends are related.

Researchers found that girls who were overweight or at risk for overweight as early as age 3 were more likely to begin puberty earlier than normal-weight girls.

Also, a large increase in body fat through first grade, as measured by body mass index (BMI), was associated with earlier puberty.

"We have known that girls with higher body masses tend to develop earlier, but we haven't really understood if it is the weight gain that leads to early breast development or if it is the puberty that leads to weight gain," lead researcher Joyce Lee, MD, MPH, of the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, tells WebMD.

The study's link between body fat and puberty lends support to the idea that the obesity epidemic among children in the U.S. may be driving a trend toward earlier puberty in girls, she adds.

Are Girls Really Maturing Earlier?

There is still some controversy about whether such a trend exists.

In 2005, researchers from Boston's Tufts University reported that the average age at which a girl gets her first period declined by 2.3 months in the U.S. between the late 1980s and 2002.

Other studies have suggested similar trends for breast and pubic hair development -- the two other measures of puberty in girls.

However, doubters attribute the perceived trend toward earlier development to more sophisticated tools for measuring the onset of puberty.

Those who believe the phenomenon is real point out that it has coincided with an increase in overweight and obesity among young girls.

In an effort to better understand the link between body weight and physical maturation, Lee and colleagues followed 354 young girls from the age of 3 through sixth grade. The girls had participated in a larger child development study and were chosen to reflect a wide range of social, economic, and regional backgrounds.

By fourth grade, 68% of the girls who were overweight or at risk for overweight had breast development indicative of puberty, compared with 40% of normal-weight girls, Lee says.

Higher BMI scores at all ages were strongly associated with earlier puberty.

And earlier onset of puberty was also associated with a bigger increase in body weight between age 3 and the first grade.

The findings are published in the March issue of Pediatrics.

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