According to a report issued in the journal Pediatrics, about 15 percent of 1,239 girls studied showed the beginnings of breast development at age 7. One in 10 white girls showed breast growth by age 7 as did 23 percent of black girls and 15 percent of Hispanic girls. These percentages are twice the figures reported in 1997.
The long-term health risks associated with early development are increased risk for estrogen-dependent cancers like breast cancer and endometrial cancers. But the more immediate effects of premature puberty are the social, emotional and mental consequences of developing breasts early or getting a period before the third grade. Risk of confusion, depression, low self-esteem, body image challenges and eating disorders are all increased. Embarrassment may prevent the young girl from communicating to her parents about what she is experiencing, both physically and mentally. Even teachers and adult authority figures are not prepared to deal with the many ramifications of a young school girl who has the body of a teenager, yet the mind of a seven-year-old.
The cause of the early onset of puberty is likely due to the American lifestyle. More than one-third of American kids are overweight. And the early puberty trend could be related to the obesity epidemic, says Marcia Herman-Giddens of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Health experts are also very concerned that the chemicals young children are exposed to via pesticides in the food supply, toxins in plastics, beauty and cleaning products and growth hormones in food, like dairy and meat, may be contributing to the problem.
Unfortunately, filtering out environmental exposure to a specific chemical is very challenging. But researchers have already clinically shown that certain chemicals affect male sexual development. Currently, scientific studies are also underway to measure the amounts of certain substances in the urine and blood specimens of young American children and compare such amounts against health predictors.
While the companies that create such chemicals are adamant that their products are indeed safe, many health advocates and concerned parents aren’t so sure.
Until we know more about the causes and effects of the early onset of puberty, having children maintain a healthy body weight and reducing their exposure to known suspected chemicals may offer a preventative effect.