Obesity is an epidemic in the United States, and its health risks are well-known: diabetes, heart disease, and more. A recent study has shown that obesity poses another risk specifically to girls: early puberty (also called precocious puberty). In 2012, Pediatrics: the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published the results of a longitudinal study of girls in three geographic regions (New York, San Francisco, and Cincinnati).
This study indicated that girls with a higher body mass index (BMI) reached stage 2 breast development earlier than girls with an on-target or lower BMI.
Higher BMI, the study found, was the greatest predictor of early breast development and early breast development signals the onset of early puberty. While most girls begin puberty between the ages of nine and eleven, this study found that girls with higher BMI began as early as age six or seven.
There were significant differences in early puberty linked to high BMI between races and incomes, with lower income African American participants having the highest BMI and earliest onset of puberty and upper income Asians and whites having the lowest rates of both obesity and early puberty.
Early puberty in girls has consequences that can be life-changing.
Girls who experience early puberty are often the focus of unwanted sexual attention, both from their peers and from adults, and this can lead to psychological issues. Early physical characteristics of puberty might also lead adults to expect more adult behavior. Girls who experience early puberty are also at increased risk for substance abuse, sexual abuse, and early pregnancy.
There are treatments and interventions for early puberty, but the issue is not a simple one. Issues of economics and race influence risk factors, and those cannot be addressed by simply changing diet. Treatment includes examining the underlying causes of early puberty. Education on healthy eating and changes in diet are a crucial part of treatment, but medical interventions can be utilized also. In some more severe cases, girls experiencing early puberty can be treated with drugs that control the hormones and essentially stop the signs of puberty until the girl has reached a more appropriate age.
As a community, what can we do to prevent early puberty and support girls who are experiencing it?
Image by Nathalie Ann vie Flickr