Girls start going through puberty as early as six years old.
Girls in the United States experience puberty at an earlier age than biologists would expect in particular, and black girls experience the process a year earlier than their peers on average, experts warn.
The phenomenon was first spotted by Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens, a public health expert at the University of North Carolina, when she began collecting data on more than 17,000 girls from the mid-1990s onwards.
He found that the average age of puberty was falling, falling to ten years, with some girls developing as young as six.
While there are no concrete reasons to explain what is happening, experts tell the New York Times they believe it has been caused by a combination of rising obesity rates, the prevalence of chemicals used in plastic, and the stress they feel in everyday life.
Experts also warn that girls who experience this early puberty are at increased risk of developing multiple types of cancer and suffering from mental health problems such as depression or anxiety.
Young girls are going through puberty at younger ages, with the average age falling to 10 years in the US, and experts can’t pinpoint an exact reason
Herma Giddens, who at the time was serving as the director of a child abuse team at Duke University, also in North Carolina, noted that many of the children who had been abused were developing breasts by age six or seven years.
Girls generally go through puberty in their early teens, and those who begin to show signs of development around the age of ten are considered early.
She told the Times that the number of girls developing rapidly didn’t “seem right.” With little data available to investigate, she began collecting data herself.
That led to a 1997 study that changed the field of medicine and doctors’ understanding of puberty in young women.
Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens (pictured), a UNC public health expert, first noticed the trend when she was helping victims of child abuse at Duke University.
The expanded research found that girls in the US were going through puberty at around age 10, earlier than any previous average data had shown. On average, the age of puberty for girls seemed to be increasing by about three months every decade.
Black girls, in particular, were developing early, and the average age of puberty was found to be nine years old.
This early puberty can also carry serious risks. They are more likely to get breast cancer or uterine cancer later in life, other studies have found.
Rates of depression, anxiety, and other potential mental health problems are higher in girls who also go through early puberty.
However, discovering this phenomenon was only the first step, as researchers now need to find out why.
While there is no conclusive investigation yet, experts who spoke to the Times laid out three possible causes that are being investigated.
The first is obesity, a growing problem in the US that has had devastating consequences for people of all ages.
Multiple studies have linked obesity in early life with early puberty, although there is no mechanism in some places to explain this link.
“I don’t think there’s much controversy that obesity is a major contributing factor to early puberty these days,” Dr. Natalie Shaw, a pediatric endocrinologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told the Times, though she believes that there are other factors. as well as.
“Obesity can’t explain all of this…it just happened too fast.”
Girls who reach puberty earlier than their peers are at higher risk of developing breast cancer or suffering from mental health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
About one in five children in the US ages two to 19 are obese, according to official figures, making pediatric obesity a significant problem in the US.
Another potential factor is the prevalence of chemicals found in plastics to which girls are exposed.
Phthalates are used in many plastics to make them more durableaccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC reports that the chemicals, which can be inhaled or consumed if they contaminate food or drink, can disrupt the reproductive system of animals, although the impacts on humans are unclear.
However, the levels of the chemicals can be found in urine samples and can tell a scientist the level of exposure a person has experienced.
Researchers have noted an increase in levels of the chemicals that show up in recent years, but no study has yet been done linking them to early puberty, even though many hormone experts believe they might be playing a role. .
A higher amount of stress could also be at play. Experts already know that girls who experience sexual abuse are more likely to experience early puberty.
During the pandemic, doctors also noticed an increase in reports of early puberty in girls around the world, a sign that the overwhelmingly stressful period was triggering early puberty.
Similar links have also been found in girls whose parents suffer from mood disorders or do not have a father at home, both scenarios that would likely increase daily stress levels.
While there is no concrete evidence that stress in youth can lead to early puberty, experts have long speculated on causation.