First graders with breasts? Third graders just mastering their multiplication tables also managing menstruation? Anecdotal reports from school nurses and my experience as a district physician have been calling attention for a while to what appears to be the earlier onset of puberty in early elementary years, especially among overweight girls.
So what is going on? A study reviewed all over the news yesterday but published in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics, showed that in fact the onset of puberty for Hispanic and black girls is not much earlier than reported in 1997 but that for white girls the onset does appear to be dropping to age 7 or 8. The reasons for earlier development are not clear. Pudgy girls appear to develop signs of breast development earlier, but in a 2009 Danish study girls were developing earlier whether overweight (measured as BMI) was a factor or not.
Researchers are postulating and concerned that some other factor in our environment, such as the chemicals in many of the ubiquitous plastics, may be disrupting the natural endocrine systems of our young girls. Further studies will need to be done to determine how this might actually happen and whether it is true in early bloomers.
In the mean time, what should we do?
As the lead author of the Pediatrics study, Dr. Frank Biro, suggested in an interview with the Los Angeles Times "...for younger children and the tweens, they should probably live a little bit greener. People could eat together as families — not avoiding fast food, but minimizing it to once a week — and families could engage in regular physical activity." Managing weight, living "green" and keeping the family meal might all serve to protect us from the risks of overweight, bad chemicals, and stress.
It's amazing how frequently it comes down to this simple bit of advice, best encapsulated by Michael Polan: "Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants." And I think I would add that we should avoid drinking, eating, and microwaving out of plastic containers until we have more information.
image credit: Google images