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Early Puberty: What does it mean for tomorrow’s women?

Abnormal sexual development from unclear cause, environmental changes suspected.

According to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, 1 in 10 girls in second and third grade, of Caucasian descent, showed stage 2 breast development (small mounds of tissue under the nipple area), which is considered the first sign of sexual maturation. This is an increase of two hundred percent since the 1980s. For African American girls, the increase is even more alarming, with nearly one in four 7 and 8 year-olds showing the early breast signs.

The causes are unclear, but suspects include:

  • Pthallates, compounds that make their way into the water supply (including bottled water) and the food chain. They come from plastics and agricultural chemicals, and mimic estrogen’s effects on body tissues.
  • Soy estrogens, from soy milk, soy beans, and the eggs and milk from animals fed soy
  • Obesity, because fat cells produce estrogen

If the causes of premature puberty are murky, the expected effects on the next generation of women are even murkier. But there are a few things we can anticipate.

Short stature

The average woman today stops growing around age 18 when she is 64 inches tall. The next generation of women are likely to be significantly shorter, since estrogen makes the growth plates in the long bones close. Usually, women grow one more inch after their periods start. So those girls who start puberty at age 7, will start their periods an average of 4 years later, at an average height of 56 inches, and may stop growing well before reaching five feet.

Shorter Lifespan

While not a strict rule, women who start their periods later go tend to also through menopause later, and this predicts longevity (unless a woman’s periods come late because she’s unhealthy because she’s anorexic, undernourished, or exercises excessively). The converse is also true, those who start their periods earlier tend to through menopause earlier and are likely to have a shorter life expectancy. The difference is relatively small and more obvious on a population level than in any given family, but real. Women who go through menopause at 55 live an average of two years longer than women who go through menopause at age 40.

Further reading:

Study from the journal Pediatrics: Pubertal Assessment Method and Baseline Characteristics in a Mixed Longitudinal Study of Girls Frank M. Biro, Maida P. Galvez, Louise C. Greenspan, Paul A. Succop, Nita Vangeepuram, Susan M. Pinney, Susan Teitelbaum, Gayle C. Windham, Lawrence H. Kushi and Mary S. Published online Aug 9, 2010

Growth charts for girls aged 2-18

Late menopause linked to long life

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. In the animal kingdom (and we are of the animal kingdom) early puberty usually points to a longer life. Girls go through puberty earlier then boys but outlive them. Also little dogs go through puberty earlier than big dogs and it isn’t unusual for a little dog to living 15 to 20 years while a big dog that has a later puberty rarely lives beyond 10 years. I had a cat that had reached her full growth before her first birthday and she lived to be 15.5 years but I had another cat that continued to grow until he was 4 years old and he died at the age of 7.5. Precocious puberty is probably another story–something caused by abnormalities but I’m referring to girls who normally and naturally have early puberty. It can be quite difficult socially and emotionally. It was for me, but by the time I was 12 I was Ok with it. I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to be menstrating at a young age. Also I’ve heard of girls that are 15 or older than don’t menstrate and it is then discovered they have an abnormality. Some girls such as ballet dancers never have periods.

  2. I began menstruating at 9 years and 8 months. I was five feet tall. I reached full growth when I was somewhere between 14 and 16 and I was five feet six. I never overtook my mother in height until she got old and started to shrink. I was 52 when I had my last period (I was a little older than average to have my last period) so the business of early menstruation means early menopause is nonsense. Before I went into puberty I was slightly underweight so being fat didn’t cause me to start my period when I was very young. I became a woman at a young age but I was still within normal limits–not precocious. In my family early puberty was the norm.

  3. True. And imagine how these hormones must affect migrating birds, local deer, and the fish, frogs, and every insect ingesting the water as it flows out to the ocean, as they too are affected by our thoughtless behavior.

  4. Also now many, many municipal water supplies contain estrogens from women taking birth control pills excreting hormones in their urine/flushing pills down drains. I think this ultimately
    may affect boys, too. Hormones are not destroyed in sewer treatment and are then being discharged in sewer effluent into rivers/streams/canals.

  5. I started growing my breasts at 7, periods at 9. My mom is 5ft1 and my dad 6ft. By the time i was 10 i was taller then my mother, i was about 5ft2. But i did not stop growing, im 5ft8 now so i grew 6 inches after puberty. A lot of it depends on genetics, but i do wonder weather i would have reached my dads height if i had not started so early. Also another thing, i have small hips too, and to say ive been having periods for 20 years now im still a tomboy, i was never a girly girl.

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