Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Parenting

Font Size

Childhood Obesity Tied to Earlier Puberty in Girls

Study compared onset age of breast development in 1997 and now

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Nov. 4 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. girls are developing breasts at a younger age compared to years past, and obesity appears to explain a large share of the shift, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that between 2004 and 2011, American girls typically started developing breasts around the age of 9. And those who were overweight or obese started sooner -- usually when they were about 8 years old.

The numbers are concerning, the researchers said -- especially since the typical age at breast development is younger now than it was in a similar study from 1997. The main reason: Girls are heavier now than they were in the '90s.

"This is another manifestation of America's high body-mass index," said lead researcher Dr. Frank Biro, of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Body-mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on a ratio of height to weight.

The findings, reported online Nov. 4 and in the December print issue of the journal Pediatrics, add to evidence that American children are hitting puberty earlier than in decades past. The rising tide of childhood obesity has been suspected as a major cause, but the new study gives more hard data to support the idea.

Biro said, however, that excess pounds do not seem to be the full explanation. And it's possible that other factors -- such as diet or chemicals in the environment -- play a role.

Why should people worry that puberty is coming sooner now than in years past? There is a concern when young kids look older than they are, and are possibly treated that way, Biro said.

Studies have found that girls who mature early are more likely to be influenced by older friends, start having sex sooner and have more problems with low self-esteem and depression. "Just because you're developing more quickly physically doesn't mean you're maturing emotionally or socially," Biro said.

Plus, early puberty has been tied to long-term health risks. For women, an earlier start to menstruation has been linked to a heightened risk of breast cancer. It's not clear why, but some researchers suspect that greater lifetime exposure to estrogen might be one reason.

Biro said earlier puberty also has been tied to increased risks of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes in adulthood. It's hard, though, to know whether earlier puberty is to blame since obese kids tend to start puberty earlier, and obese children often become obese adults, he said.

Dr. Patricia Vuguin, a pediatric endocrinologist at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., said it's not known if it's the earlier development or the obesity itself that causes the increased risk of those conditions.

Today on WebMD

Girl holding up card with BMI written
Is your child at a healthy weight?
toddler climbing
What happens in your child’s second year.
 
father and son with laundry basket
Get your kids to help around the house.
boy frowning at brocolli
Tips for dealing with mealtime mayhem
 
mother and daughter talking
Tool
child brushing his teeth
Slideshow
 
Sipping hot tea
Slideshow
Young woman holding lip at dentists office
Video
 
6-Week Challenges
Want to know more?
Chill Out and Charge Up Challenge – How to help your tribe de-stress and energize.
Spark Change Challenge - Ready for a healthy change? Get some major motivation.
I have read and agreed to WebMD's Privacy Policy.
Enter cell phone number
- -
Entering your cell phone number and pressing submit indicates you agree to receive text messages from WebMD related to this challenge. WebMD is utilizing a 3rd party vendor, CellTrust, to provide the messages. You can opt out at any time.
Standard text rates apply
Which Vaccines Do Adults Need
Article
rl with friends
fitSlideshow
 
tissue box
Quiz
Child with adhd
Slideshow