Physicians used to detect the changes that occur in puberty in girls between ages 10 to 14. Now, however, new research is showing that the obesity epidemic has resulted in signs of puberty in girls younger than 10, reported CBS News on November 4.
Researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center discovered that many girls in their study had matured when they were only nine years old. For that reason, they propose redefining puberty.
Moreover, the study's authors are warning that early puberty has been linked to health risks in adolescents that are both psychological and physical.
"The current study suggests clinicians may need to redefine the ages for both early and late maturation in girls," stated lead researcher Dr. Frank Biro, director of research for adolescent and transition medicine at Cincinnati Children's.
Among the risks of early maturation:
- low self-esteem
- vulnerability to being influenced by older peers to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse
About 17 percent of U.S. children and teens are obese, according to federal statistics. That percentage is triple the rate in the 1980's.
"The obesity epidemic appears to be a prime driver in the decrease in age" of maturation, said the researchers.
One expert is concerned that doctors will accept the changes in the age range for puberty without attempting to make a difference.
"Because early puberty and menarche are associated with many detrimental health and psychosocial issues, we must not accept this premature development as the 'new normal,'" Dr. Marcia. E. Herman-Giddens, a maternal and child health researcher at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in an editorial published in the same journal issue.
She had previously authored a study a year earlier that found signs that U.S. boys reached puberty about two years earlier than what was considered typical.
"Fortunately, we have moved beyond controversy about the data and are responding to the wake- up call," she wrote.
Childhood obesity affects about 17 percent of children under the age of 18, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
In June, the American Medical Association voted to categorize obesity as a disease. They hoped it would aid in how the medical community addressed the weight issues. What remains: How the medical community addresses obesity in children.