Blossoming Too Early?
American girls are reaching puberty younger than ever. Why?
April 3, 2000 (Bellevue, Wash.) -- Like many girls who enter puberty earlier
than most, Kathy Pitts was confused and scared when she got her period at 9.
"My mother never mentioned the changes that go along with puberty -- maybe
she thought I was too young," says Pitts, now 35 and the mother of a
9-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter in Bellevue, Wash. "It would have
really helped if my mom had talked to me about what to expect."
These days, Pitts would have had plenty of company. More young girls are
showing signs of puberty as early as 7 or 8 and beginning to menstruate two to
three years later. As a result, parents are increasingly faced with the
difficult task of talking to young children about topics that had traditionally
been reserved for preteens and teens.
While previous studies have found that girls typically began showing signs
of puberty at 10 to 11, a new report by the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine
Society (LWPES), a nationwide network of physicians headquartered in Stanford,
Calif., suggests that it is normal for white girls as young as 7 and black
girls as young as 6 to start developing breasts. This conclusion was based on a
study of 17,000 girls between the ages of 3 and 12 conducted by the Pediatric
Research in Office Settings (PROS) network of 1,500 pediatricians nationwide
and published in the April 1997 issue of Pediatrics.
"This study is significant because it gives us a marker for when parents
should be concerned about physical development that is truly too early and may
be a sign of a hormonal imbalance," says Paul Boepple, M.D., Associate
Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at Massachusetts General Hospital in
Boston and at Harvard Medical School. "It also gives parents a heads-up
that they need to talk about the physical and emotional changes of puberty with
kids possibly as young as age 5."
Why Is the Age of Puberty Dropping?
Nobody knows for certain why girls are entering puberty earlier, but the
most popular theory involves insecticides, such as PCB, which can break down
into compounds that may have estrogenic activity in young girls, thus
triggering the onset of puberty.
Others attribute the drop to in increase in childhood obesity. "My own
bias is that a major contributor to earlier puberty is the increasing
prevalence of obesity over the past 25 years -- especially in 6- to 11-year-old
girls," says Paul Kaplowitz, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics at
Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Charlottesville, Va.,
and author of the LWPES report. "It has long been known that overweight
girls tend to mature earlier and thin girls tend to mature later."
As for African-American girls maturing even earlier, Boepple believes this
may be due to a higher cultural tendency toward obesity, while Kaplowitz
hypothesizes that there may be genetic differences within the African-American
population that predispose them to an earlier onset.
If a child is showing early signs of puberty, an evaluation by an
endocrinologist is recommended to rule out other risks. "In a few cases,
early puberty can be indicative of a tumor of the reproductive organs or that
the brain has erroneously triggered the production of estrogen," says
Boepple. "The great majority of girls are just developing early. But if a
girl has unusual symptoms including headaches, abdominal pain, and weight loss,
or if there isn't the growth spurt associated with puberty, there may be