U.S. girls are reaching puberty at younger ages than ever before. In the 1990s, breast development -- the first sign of puberty in girls -- at age 8 was considered an abnormal event that should be investigated by an endocrinologist.
However, by 1999, following a 1997 study that found almost half of African Americans and 15 percent of whites had begun breast development by age 8, the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society suggested changing what is viewed as “normal.”
They suggested changing puberty at age 8 from abnormal to normal, and lowering the abnormal puberty age to 7 for white girls and 6 for African American girls.
But while some experts believe the shift is nothing to worry about, others, including parents, are alarmed.
Early puberty, which exposes girls to estrogen for more of their lives, is linked to breast cancer and other health risks, but scientists are at a loss of how to study the potential causes for early puberty, which include:
- Hormones in food
- Pesticides in produce
- Phthalates in plastics and cosmetics
- Obesity, which exposes girls to more estrogen
- Stress from living in a fatherless household
- Sexually suggestive TV shows
Conducting a study to test these factors is next to impossible because there are so many estrogen-like chemicals in the environment that there are no control populations to balance out the study.
And while scientists grapple with how to figure out what’s causing girls to develop at younger and younger ages, parents are forced to have adult conversations with their children much sooner than expected.