Breasts versus puberty

It’s reading articles like this terrific NYT Magazine piece on the seeming increase of early puberty in girls that used to make me glad to be a father of just boys.   Not easy for the girl and not easy for her parents when she starts developing as young as 6.  The article traces the various difficulties involved and how the medical establishment is struggling to understand what’s going on.  Toward the end, we learn what’s really disturbing: puberty (as officially defined by onset of menstruation) is only getting a little bit earlier, rather it is the growth of breasts that just keeps getting earlier.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, though it’s definitely worth it, there’s a nice summary in the Motherlode blog:

researchers at three big institutions — Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York — published [a] study in Pediatrics, finding that by age 7, 10 percent of white girls, 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls and 2 percent of Asian girls had started developing breasts.”

But that earlier average age  for breast development hasn’t been accompanied by a similarly early age of first menarche (the arrival of a girl’s first period). It’s remained nearly constant since the 1970s, only dropping from 12.8 to 12.5 years. The broad question of why has researchers confused, and the individual question — why one particular 7-year-old rather than another begins to develop breasts at an early age — has the doctors that the girls and their families consult just as mystified. “We can tell you what is happening but we can’t tell you why or what, if anything, to do about it,” Paul Kaplowitz, chief of endocrinology at Children’s National Medical Center, admitted to Ms. Weil.

What’s so disturbing about that is that it suggests that the chemical signals to start breast growth are not coming from within a girls own body (as they are obviously supposed to), but from chemicals in the external environment.  There’s just no way that’s a good thing.  And, of course, doctors and scientists aren’t quite sure the source of the hormonal mimics that are causing the early breast growth.  So, sure, as a parent you don’t want your daughter to face additional social/psychological challenges that may come from early breast growth, but it’s even worse to realize that a possible cause is unnatural exposure to chemicals in the environment.

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