Recently, I read an alarming statistic that describes the onset of puberty as beginning to occur at an earlier and earlier age for American girls, with many girls as young as 7 and 8. New research shows that 10.4 percent of Caucasian girls, 23.4 of African-American girls, and almost 15 percent of Hispanic girls have displayed signs of early onset puberty.
Early onset of puberty begs the questions – who or what is stealing the childhood of this age group of girls? I researched the probable causes and discovered a study that attributes it to the hormones that are used in cattle feed. The study suggests that the hormones in beef could be causing an acceleration of puberty in American’s children (Journal Of Public Health Nutrition, 2010). Further, the use of the so-called stealth estrogens is why the European Union has banned the import of most North American Beef, which is hormone treated. The ban has been a major dispute and is under consideration at the World Trade Organization.
Another hidden but insidious cause of early onset of puberty is the presence of many environmental toxins, which act as hormone-disruptors. In his book, Our Stolen Future , Dr. John Myers of the United Nations highlighted the toxic effects of some of the estimated 70,000 chemicals in commercial use. Dr. Myers believes that some shampoos, for example, contain almost the same amount of hormones as the low-dose estrogen patches, which are used for hormone-replacement therapy in postmenopausal women.
Another study by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2005 describes that the age of onset of puberty for girls is controlled by the value of fat stores in the body. Enough fat in the body signals to the brain that there would likely be enough food and nourishment available if reproduction were to happen. In other words, improved access to food and nutrition has caused this change, particularly over the past 20 years. But the availability of food is a catch-22 in this regard. Girls may have access to more food, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is nutritious, or that the availability of food isn’t leading to a secondary problem of obesity, which is also a cause of earlier puberty.
This problem affects children’s social development, as well. It goes beyond the physical because, while these kids who are going through puberty at younger and younger ages may look more mature, they still have the emotions of young children. For boys, with the exception of stealth hormones used in beef and environmental toxins, the connections between fat storage in the body and early onset of puberty is reversed when compared to girls. That is, studies have shown that fat storage of obesity in boys actually delays the onset of puberty, which can affect boys in other ways, particularly when it comes to self-esteem and body image.
Is the magic of a full childhood gone? Statistics do not lie. Early onset of puberty is not only stealing our kids’ childhoods, but may also be leading to other repercussions in later years of development. Will there be other health or behavioral issues that our children must face because of it?