Growing Older Sooner

One of the alarming trends in the US, as well as other foreign nations around the globe, is that girls are maturing earlier. In contemporary times, it is common for young girls to start the beginning stages of puberty (hair growth, breast development, etc.) at 7 or 8 years old, a record breaking age compared to past centuries. While the menarche (first period) still does not show itself till about twelve years of age, this is still an unprecedented early age when looking at the trend of first menstruation over the 1800’s and the 1900’s.

First noticing this trend over 140 years ago, researchers began documenting the age of the first menstruation. In 1860, the average age of menarche was occurring at 16.6 years old, showing a steep decline in the following decades, marking it as 14.6 years in 1920 and 13.2 years in 1950. While this trend seems to finally have leveled off since the 80’s where the last recorded and most accurate age is 12.5 years old, the rate at which the first stages of puberty is observed is still rapidly declining.

Boys, like girls, are also seeing the emergence of puberty (facial hair, growth spurts, etc) at younger and younger ages, but the trend toward full blown puberty at an earlier age is not as rapid or as pronounced as it is the female sex.

Another epidemic affecting more and more young girls, is the problem of precocious puberty – or premature puberty. Scientifically, this is defined by breast development accompanied by a growth spurt in girls younger than the age of 8. Due to the decreasing trend in the age of girls at the start of puberty, there is a lot of debate over what age is actually too young (considering the norm) and should be defined as “precocious”.

There is also argument over what actually constitutes the onset of puberty. Dr. Lawrence Silverman, a pediatric endocrinologist at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey argues that sometimes precocious puberty is wrongly diagnosed, stating “The appearance of acne and pubic hair is common even in infants and toddlers. It goes away. We need to be careful about how we identify the true onset of puberty.” In most cases of true precocious puberty, the body will eventually correct itself, causing the process to slow down and stall, but not before causing menstruation in the premature, often emotionally unprepared girl.

Despite the overall decline in age of the onset of puberty, the data does differ vastly when considering variables like race. In the US, for example, African-American and Hispanic girls tend to reach puberty earlier than their white counterparts by 1-1.5 years. The mean age of breast development in African-American girls in the US is 8.9 years old compared to the much older 10.5 years that is the mean age for breast development in Caucasian girls. While the cause of this is unclear, there are many, interacting factors affecting the situation.

While everything from economic reasons to climatic change to genes has been cited as part of the cause in the decline of age at the onset of puberty, none of these can explain the overall reduction, rather than just individual cases.

One of the most widely held beliefs is that improved nutrition in modern times has caused bigger and heavier children than in the past, allowing for normal growth. Another probable cause and one with the most evidentiary proof is the rising epidemic of obesity globally. At the annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Orlando, Florida, in 2001, pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Paul Kaplowitz presented a study he conducted that included girls from the ages of 6 to 9 and helped discover a link between body fat and the timing of puberty.

Beyond loosely linked evidence and slight correlations, the scientific community is still perplexed and unable to explain the reduction of age in the onset of puberty and the rapid increase of precocious puberty, leaving it a hot topic for future studies.


6 thoughts on “Growing Older Sooner”

  1. This is a subject that I really didn’t know anything about. It is definitely a peculiar phenomenon. I find it interesting to see how our bodies are developing as technology and research on nutrition and physiology becomes more advanced. I am currently in Communications Sciences and Disorders 146 and we were learning about how different it is for us to learn about the body compared to the 1800s, even the early 1900s. It really makes me wonder where we are going to be in 50 or 100 years. How will the development process be different? Is puberty going to start earlier? I also find it interesting that obesity might be affecting our development as well. It is a huge issue in so many way!

  2. The nutritional aspect holds a lot of validity, not only in the types and quantities of food that we are consuming, and the epidemic of obesity, but also because of the many hormones that we ingest in basic and healthy foods such as milk and meats. And I agree, the overarching concern for the increased rate of puberty is the increasing sexuality of puberty that younger and younger kids will start to inherit. It’s really scary and could have really horrible emotional impacts on kids as they continue to develop. The increasing promiscuity of teenagers definitely has factors in both science and culture, as do most issues. I think it’s interesting to analyze the way both our society promotes earlier maturation as well as the scientific evidence that surrounds the issue.

  3. This topic is a surprising one, that has changed drastically over time. With these girls of younger ages beginning to develop and look older, it leads me to think that society will treat them accordingly. With the process of puberty happening to females at younger ages, I wonder if this is aiding to the pressure to grow up in other aspects of social life as well. I also found the link between body fat and puberty to be fascinating for I have never though of those having a correlation. Job well done.

  4. I think the topic of puberty not only effects the physical attributes to young children, but is one of the reasons that we see kids growing up so much faster socially as well, such as a decrease in the age at which kids begin to be sexually active. I think associating nutrition with early puberty is an interesting argument that will bring forth many years of research and further understanding of the human body.

  5. Wow. I did my paradigm shift essay on how kids are maturing a lot faster mentally, I didn’t really realize the fact kids are biologically maturing faster as well. I think it is interesting to note that these two seem to correlate with one another. How one’s behavior can be caused by their genetic makeup. I wonder if the age will keep getting lower. Could you imagine a 6 year old with breasts? That’s a scary image. I feel like this could really negatively effect our society and the way children are brought up. If the “teenage” years went from 13-18 to 6-18, what would that mean for future generations? Kids would be losing their childhood a lot quicker and possible having to grow up quicker. I wonder if it puts them in more danger of sexual predators if they are maturing at such a quick pace. This issue really concerns me and I’m interested to learn more.

  6. This is a very interesting topic. I agree that girls are not only reaching puberty at an earlier age, but they are also being asked to mature more quickly than boys in recent society. I think that the possible reason of better nutrition, you stated for early onset of puberty in the present time, makes sense as a probable cause. Since some athletes like gymnasts who such low body fat tend to not hit puberty until their career is over, the fact that more and more children are heavier or obese seems like a reason why they are reaching puberty earlier.
    Can’t wait to read more of your ideas, good job.

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