What's Making 7-Year Old Girls Develop Breasts?

An eye-opening study profiled in the New York Times reveals that some girls in the United States are hitting puberty at abnormally early ages -- sometimes at 7 or 8 years old. There are a number of suspected causes for this potentially dangerous trend, chief among them childhood obesity and exposure to chemicals. This gives us yet another reason to examine the habits and environs we've grown accustomed -- and some would say, oblivious -- to over the years.

The New York Times reports:

A new study finds that girls are more likely today than in the past to start developing breasts by age 7 or 8. The research is just the latest in a flood of reports over the last decade that have led to concern and heated debate about whether girls are reaching puberty earlier, and why it might be happening.

Increased rates of obesity are thought to play a major role, because body fat can produce sex hormones. Some researchers also suspect that environmental chemicals that mimic the effects of estrogen may be speeding up the clock on puberty, but that idea is unproved.

One of the reasons that earlier puberty rates concern scientists is that it puts women at a higher risk of breast cancer, due to a longer "lifetime exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone". Early puberty can also be emotionally and psychologically damaging to girls. Furthermore, researchers worry that if the change is being triggered by an environmental factor, like exposure to a chemical, then there may be an additional cancer risk therein.

So the researchers have set about testing a wide range of household chemicals, along with the hormone levels of affected girls to see if there's a correlation. And I think that the first author of the study, Dr. Biro, has some sage words about the potential root of the problem: "It's certainly throwing up a warning flag. I think we need to think about the stuff we're exposing our bodies to and the bodies of our kids. This is a wake-up call, and I think we need to pay attention to it."

Further study needs to be done, but the warning signs like those Dr. Biro cites seem to be popping up in more arenas than ever -- yet another reason we need to continue focusing on healthier eating habits and taking stock of the chemicals in the products we surround ourselves with every day.

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