Rapid puberty

Recently, I’ve been hearing again about how children (mainly females) are reaching puberty at an earlier age than they have in the past. While I haven’t done any in depth studies myself on it, the layman’s opinion seems to be simply “Those 12 year olds have bigger breasts than when I was in junior high” and the medical opinion (that I have read) seems to indicate that the age at which a girl can become pregnant seems to be decreasing. But on the other hand, I’ve been hearing this for ages now, so it seems that if it’s been going on at the rate they claim it has, by now a 5 year old should be becoming a woman. So what’s the story? Has it mainly been hype? Are girls developing faster than they used to but it’s hit a leveling off point by now? Still decreasing? Any accepted theories why? I think the first time I heard about this, it was on a St. Elsewhere re-run where they were blaming it on estrogen being given to cows to help age them quicker and then getting into the nation’s hamburger supply (I’m not saying this is a hard and fast theory, rather than St. Elsewhere is hardly a recent source).

All I can tell you is anecdotal, but here goes…

  1. About 7 years ago I had a youth ministry internship at a small church in Mississippi. While at church camp, whilst swimming in the pool I noticed that the girls (3rd-graders) had extraordinary amounts of hair on their legs. I mentioned this to the camp counselor, and he didn’t seem to have a good explanation, other than to say that I obviously didn’t spend much time around 3rd-graders or else I wouldn’t have noticed. I guess it was his way of saying that I wasn’t seeing anything unusual.

  2. My younger half-sister, now 14, didn’t reach menarche until age 13. According to her mother, sissy was quite concerned about how “late” it came; apparently other girls in her peer group were bragging about it or something.

  3. In my 6th-grade class at church, one 11-year-old girl could pass for a high-school freshman with the figure she has. Two other 11-year-olds have big enough breasts to wear training bras, and the other two 11-year-olds are so flat-chested they could pass for boys. I don’t believe any of them have gotten their periods yet, but I’m sure as hell not going to ask them. I already feel pretty icky about writing this paragraph, as if I’ve given the impression that I spend a lot of time staring at 11-year-olds’ breasts in church (I don’t).

  4. Finally, Katie Couric had a pediatrician on The Today Show who said that the research is clear: white girls, on average, are reaching puberty sixteen months or so earlier than their grandmothers did. The numbers were even more startling for black and Hispanic girls, although I don’t remember what they were. This pediatrician postulated that things like poverty/standard of living/diet were related to the differences in the numbers among the races.

So, not a definitive answer to the OP by anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly fodder for discussion.

Good luck, Jophiel


Time Magazine did a cover story on this subject, I saw it on their online site, you can probably still search it up yourself at time.com. One of the conclusions was that the recent trend towards early puberty in girls is probably due to environmental pollution, particularly “environmental hormones” which are a byproduct of everything from manufacture of plastics, to cattle production.

Something else mentioned in the same article: It’s happening to boys to. However, because the effects are less obvious (you know, because it’s mostly in their pants…I will refrain from any and all tasteless jokes, thank you), it’s not as much of a problem.

Hmmm… reading the above link, they say that girls are getting pubic hair and breasts fairly early on but the age of menstration hasn’t budged. I find that pretty odd. Shouldn’t the two be linked more than that? For that matter, and keep in mind that I’m no expert on this, I thought that girls had always sterted getting some sort of swelling in the chest at about age 9 or 10 or so. Not real breasts per se, but rather the beginnings of development. Anyway, all I’m doing here is proving how ignorant I am of this whole thing.

I guess the other question is why ‘environmental hormones’ aren’t causing boys to mature faster. I can see the ole ‘estrogen in the meat’ theory for girls, but does plastic manufacturing really cause pseduo-estrogen?

DKW, you beat me to it and made me sound stupid – curse you! :wink: Anyway, I had read the link but hadn’t tracked down the Time article yet.

In the 19th century, the typical age of girls reaching puberty was around 16 or so (exact figures are probably unavailable). Somewhere I read that during the 20th century, this age decreased about half a year every decade.

There’ve been a number of hypotheses made to account for this. Better nutrition has the best support, I understand. I don’t remember any of the others except for estrogen-mimicking polutants and artificial lighting.

There seems to be a bottom limit on how early a girl can begin menstruating. The average age of the onset of menstruation has been decreasing over the past century, but even a hundred years ago there were rare cases of girls beginning their periods as young as seven or eight. At the time the average age for the onset of menstruation was around 15. Today the average age has decreased to 11 or 12, but the bottom limit of seven or eight has held. No one is sure exactly why this is, but it seems unlikely that we’ll have to worry about pubescent five year olds anytime soon.

A friend of mine (a freshman, I guess that makes him 14 or 15) came into school on Monday 2 inches taller than he was on Friday. It was kinda strange, but I guess that’s just how guys grow.

<old geezer voice> Back when I was in college and dinosaurs roamed the earth, </old geezer voice> the theory was the increasingly early onset of puberty was due to (order of memory, possibly of no significance):

  1. the increased body fat at earlier ages (improvement(?) in diets, or lack of exercise)
  2. the amount of light the girls were exposed to
  3. hormones in meat/dairy products
    I recall my human physiology professor claiming that some countries strictly regulated the light exposure and diets of their Olympic-hopeful female gymnasts to delay puberty as long as possible.
    I would resist the temptation to rely on small samples or anecdotal evidence on this one.

Drop the phrase “early onset puberty” into Google and you will get a plethora of hits.

There are some synthetic chemcials that act like estrogen. Right now there is a lot of research going on to see if these chemicals can have effects on the uterus,ovaries, testes, etc. even at very low doses. These chemicals are in the environment and people are exposed to them every day. So far the results are that they do cause changes in the above organs but the research is still ongoing.