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.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

5 Responses to Breasts versus puberty

  1. itchy says:

    I have more observations than I can type here.

    First, I don’t argue that this isn’t a real effect, to some degree. But there are a lot of indicators that it’s premature to freak out about it.

    1. The mother in the NYT anectode is a colorful, but horrible, example: She’s not satisfied with the real answer — which is that we don’t know — so she goes looking for any answer in pseudo-science, the purveyors of which are all to happy to take her money and give her a definitive, made-up answer. She seems far more stressed about her daughter’s condition than does her daughter. She then makes the assumption that she knows the cause and sells new-agey solutions herself. Finally, her impression of her daughter’s emotional swings smacks of confirmation bias. Prior to her daughter’s “development,” I’ll bet she classified her daughter’s emotional reactions as tantrums. Now, they’re “cycling.”

    2. I didn’t see a single reference in any of the studies, but I assume this trend is only established for “developed” nations? We know there are health and environmental differences between developed and developing nations that don’t require a “hidden” chemical explanation. At the least, if obesity and puberty are linked, we should not be surprised.

    3. Is it possible that, with today’s helicopter parents, the trend is being overstated? That there always have been outliers who developed breasts and entered puberty prematurely, but their parents didn’t rush them from doctor to doctor? With millions of girls, you are going to find several scary examples, no matter what the overall average.

    4. “We know that girls who develop ahead of their peers tend to have lower self-esteem, more depression and more eating disorders.”

    But if this trend is across-the-board, then most girls are entering puberty earlier, so they’re *not* developing ahead of their peers. It’s like the writer wants to have it both ways. And if this trend isn’t universal, then it’s less likely that there’s a broad, external environmental factor.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if, as some of the researchers in the article imply, the three main markers of puberty — breast development, pubic hair and menstruation — are not as tightly linked as we thought.

    It still isn’t comfortable to think that there is this trend that we can’t yet explain.

    As the parent of a nearly-8-year-old girl, I share the fear and unease about the next several years. And I understand the “my little baby isn’t ready for this” reaction. But if you want a sure-fire way to cause stress and unease, by all means, tell your daughter that there’s something wrong with her body that makes her different.

  2. Jon says:

    I have no data on me to support this; this is just a surface thought. Growth hormones are commonly used in our cattle, and our chickens to cause early development and shorter business cycles. It would seem logical that since Cattle are mammals as are people, that many of the same growth hormones used on cattle could work for people too. I’ve wondered about this myself in the past. Find an academic Biologist, and Statistician who are both desperate to find something to publish about… and convince them to collaborate. The Biologist would get the biology right, and the Statistician should be able to handle the statistics correctly.

  3. Jon says:

    Umm… if it were possible for the extra growth hormones used for the cattle were still present in varying degrees within the meat (or the milk… for that matter; that would make a lot of sense), and if such hormones could effect humans… There could be higher levels of estrogen and all sorts of stuff that shouldn’t be there in males too… it wouldn’t necessarily be just a “Woman’s Problem”. The law of unforeseen consequences at work…

  4. Jon says:

    You know, it would really suck if the food industry managed to accidentally sterilize a whole population because they put something into the vegetables or the meat that was intended to save themselves money… the law of unforeseen consequences…

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