A century ago, menstruation first occurred on average around 17 years of age. Today, puberty can begin as early as eight with the average onset of menstruation occurring around 12. Although the mechanism is still poorly understood, puberty begins with a complex cocktail of hormones and is accompanied by the development of breasts, body hair and menarche. The process can take between 1 ½ and 6 years to complete. Today, about half of all females have some breast development by the time they are 10, and a substantial percentage have breast buds at eight. The reasons behind earlier puberty are unclear, but researchers need to find out more to reduce the potential risks.
Some experts believe that the declining age of menarche can be attributed to better nutrition and better health, which means that earlier puberty may be due in part to natural adaptations. However, other experts believe that the underlying cause may be slightly less innocent in nature, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals, premature birth, insulin resistance and obesity. Endocrine disruptors are commonly found in our food supply, but they are also in drinking water and in the air. Prenatal and early-life exposure to these hormonally active agents has been found to induce earlier sexual maturity in animals.
Although physical changes do not necessarily mark the end of childhood, young girls with bodies that are more adult in nature are often facing heavy societal and peer pressures. Some studies have linked early physical maturation with lower self-esteem, anxiety and suicidal ideations as well as an increased risk of smoking and substance abuse. Girls who develop early may also be more vulnerable to sexual assault.
We may not be able to fully protect our children from all endocrine-disrupting chemicals, but there are risk factors that we can control. Cut out soda and juice while focusing on a healthy, balanced diet to help your daughter reach or maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity. Reduce TV, electronics use and other free time activities that involve more sitting than moving, and use exercise and physical activities as a way to enjoy your family’s free time together. Reduce chemical exposure whenever possible by using glass or aluminum water bottles rather than plastic bottles, and look for organic meat and dairy products, which are less likely to contain hormones and antibiotics. Talk to your daughter about healthy ways to manage stress, and help her understand her body and the coming changes in a positive, healthy way.
We need to find out more through research to better understand the link between our society, our environment and early puberty, but until then, you can give your children the tools they need to enjoy better physical, emotional and mental health.