A study shows children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to show signs of puberty earlier than would be considered to be normal. Early puberty means the affected child is at an increased risk of developing obesity, certain types of cancer and problems with their mental health and wellbeing in later life. Importantly, these results add to the reasons to address poverty in the UK.
Puberty is a series of physical changes that boys and girls go through because of a hormone,’gonadotrophin releasing hormone’ released by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hormone acts as a messenger to tell the body to undergo certain changes in a particular order. These changes include breast development in girls, enlargement of testicles in boys and both will grow and develop pubic hair. Later changes include girls start menstruating (their periods) and boys experience deepening of their voice. Initial changes usually occur around the age of 11 in girls and 12 for boys. Earlier than this can be considered early puberty although of course there is a normal variation in when these may occur.
Early puberty is not the same as precocious puberty which is when it begins before the age of 8 in girls and 9 in boys. This may represent an underlying medical condition.
In this study researchers asked parents of nearly 3,700 children to score their child for the physical changes relating to puberty between 10 and 11 years of age. If girls had begun menstruating then this was automatically considered to be early puberty. They were also asked to assess whether boys had developed facial hair and deepening of the voice, whether girls had developed breasts and whether both had undergone a growth spurt and had changes in their skin.
Scientists carrying out this research in Australia graded households according to the income, occupation and education of those living with the child. The results show boys are 4 times more likely and girls twice as likely to go through early puberty if they come from an extremely unfavourable background.
This is worrying as early puberty is associated with an increase risk of developing obesity and problems with mental health such as eating disorders and depression. In addition to this, girls who begin having periods earlier are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer and some studies have shown boys that go through early puberty may be more at risk of developing testicular cancer.
It is important to remember, though, that there is still a wide range of what is normal and not all children going through earlier changes will have adverse effects on their health. There may also be other reasons a child may go through puberty early including the child being overweight, stress, ethnic background, having been born prematurely and there being a family history of early puberty.
The research does, however, highlight that the environment we grow up in can affect our health later in life. This can only add to the reasons to address inequalities in society for the benefit of those growing up in very poor households.
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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.
Links and Further Reading
- Sun Y, Mensah FK, Azzopardi P, et al. Childhood Social Disadvantage and Pubertal Timing: A National Birth Cohort From Australia. Pediatrics. May 2017 e20164099.
Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer. Menarche, menopause, and breast cancer risk: individual participant meta-analysis, including 118 964 women with breast cancer from 117 epidemiological studies. The Lancet Oncology. 2012;13(11):1141-1151. doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(12)70425-4. Available via:
- Golub MS, Collman GW, et al. Public health implications of altered puberty timing. Pediatrics. 2008 Feb;121 Suppl 3:S218-30. Available via: ://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0ahUKEwjS9J-S6MDUAhXKfxoKHVC0A_cQFggtMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fpediatrics.aappublications.org%2Fcontent%2Fpediatrics%2F121%2FSupplement_3%2FS218.full.pdf%3Fdownload%3Dtrue&usg=AFQjCNFKSN_2YKDLTO8fUILjjFwoJB2XDw
- Image courtesy of Pixabay