Frank Biro spends large parts of his days studying breasts, especially in young girls. But Biro is no pervert — in fact, quite the opposite. He’s a professor of medicine documenting a scary trend: early puberty.
“Today more 7- and 8-year-old girls are developing breasts than was the case in 1997,” explains Biro, director of Adolescent Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Center. “This is a worrisome trend. Girls who mature earlier are more likely to abuse drugs, have low academic achievement and a higher rate of depression.”
In a study published earlier this year, Biro found that 10 percent of white girls and 23 percent of black 7-year-old girls have breasts. A year later, 18 percent of white girls and 43 percent of black girls experience breast development.
“Both boys and girls enter puberty earlier,” notes Dr. Anders Juul, director of the Department of Growth and Reproduction at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen. “During a 15-year-period, the age of getting breasts has gone down by two years, while the age of puberty for boys has gone down by four months.”
For boys, puberty is measured in genital stages and by enlargement of the testicles.
“The trend toward early puberty has been going on for hundreds of years,” says Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens of the University of North Carolina.
“In the 18th century, Bach had 17-year-old boys singing soprano in his choir. … In Bach’s time it was a matter of class. Wealthier, better-fed children had early puberty. Now it’s the opposite.”
But nobody can explain for sure why children are entering puberty earlier. Obesity is blamed for girls’ early puberty, as large amount of body fat triggers breast growth. Plastics and exposure to chemicals are also thought to be a factor.
“Nine-year-old girls used to play with dolls,” notes Herman-Giddens. “Now they talk about boys. But sex education doesn’t start until kids are 11 or 12. That’s crazy.”
Early breasts and risk of cancer
Researchers haven’t established exactly what causes early puberty.
“And we don’t know whether it will result in higher mortality rates later in life,” says Dr. Anders Juul. But girls who reach puberty early are more likely to get breast cancer. This is thought to stem from the fact that such girls have more years of exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
“Breast cancer is showing an increase, particularly among younger women,” says Dr. Frank Biro. “And they’re developing more aggressive types of breast cancer.” Girls with early puberty also reach a lower adult height.
Kids in adult bodies
“People judge children by how old they look,” says Dr. Frank Biro. “We interact with a 12-year-old girl who looks like 16 as if she is 16.” While 7-year-olds may have breasts and mature testicles, their cognitive abilities remain those of a child. That is to say, boys and girls with adult sexual organs don’t reason like adults.