Surprising Factors Linked to Premature Puberty in Girls

Surprising Factors Linked to Premature Puberty in Girls

Let’s face it:  puberty, even when it occurs normally, can be a stressful time in the life of a developing young woman or man. Normally, puberty occurs between the ages of eight and thirteen in girls and nine and fourteen in boys. Of course, there are many signs ranging from the development of breasts and onset of menstruation in girls to a change in voice and bodily hair growth in boys. But, puberty seems to be coming earlier and earlier for our children. Sometimes significant development is seen by seven years of age for girls and nine for boys, well before a child may be emotionally and physically able to handle these changes.

While premature breast development is a common problem in young girls, in the past scientists believed that the onset of menstruation has been largely unaffected by external factors, and typically occurs around age eleven or afterward, or about two to three years after other puberty symptoms appear. But, two new studies found that the age a young woman begins to menstruate can be affected by exposures to other factors, including: aspartame, caffeine and second-hand cigarette smoke.

According to a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that some beverages could actually cause girls to prematurely begin their periods. In an effort to find out what may be causing premature onset of menstruation, scientists at Columbia University Medical Center, the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, and George Washington University constructed a study to determine whether soft drinks could be playing a role.

The scientists recruited 2379 girls, of which 1213 were of African-American ethnicity and 1166 were Caucasian. The girls were nine and ten years of age and had not yet begun menstruating.  The researchers assessed the effects of consuming sugar-sweetened soft drinks, caffeinated soft drinks, artificially-sweetened soft drinks and non-caffeinated soft drinks and found some startling results. While neither the sugar-sweetened or non-caffeinated soda seemed to play a role in the early onset of menstruation in the girls involved in the study, both artificially-sweetened and caffeinated soft drinks played a significant role.

The effects on other symptoms of puberty were not assessed in this study. The effects of aspartame and caffeine were also not assessed in boys, since this study focused exclusively on the onset of menstruation in girls.

In another study published in PLoS One, researchers found a link between secondhand smoke exposure and the premature start of periods in young women. In this study researchers assessed the effects of passive cigarette smoke on young women in southern China, none of whom had ever actively smoked cigarettes. In this study 20,061 women were assessed for a possible link between passive cigarette smoke exposure and menarche (the beginning of periods in a young woman). The researchers determined that 11,379 women in the study were exposed to secondhand smoke during their childhood. Those who were exposed to the cigarette smoke of two smokers in their household had their periods begin 0.38 of a year earlier than those who had no exposure at all.

While it is likely that the aspartame, caffeine and second-hand smoke are influencing the hormones of the young women, it is not clear what other effects they might experience in life as a result of these early exposures.  It is clear that some of the effects of our modern lifestyle are affecting our children, but it may be too soon to know how severely these effects will be experienced.

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