Early Onset Puberty Affects Girls As Young As 5

By Amir Khan on June 20, 2012 8:58 AM EDT

Children
Over the past century, the average age girls go through puberty has dropped to 10-years-old, and some girls start developing as young as five (Photo: Creative Commons)

Early onset puberty affects girls as young as 5-years-old, according to research presented at the Cheltenham Science Festival in England last week. 

Over the past century, the average age girls go through puberty has dropped to 10-years-old, and some girls start developing as young as five, researchers said. While researchers can't fully explain the cause, they say stress is a major contributor.

"We are seeing early puberty in situations which we would deem stressful for girls, for example being adopted or growing up without their biological father in the house," Richard Sharpe, lead researcher and group leader at the Centre for Reproductive Health in the U.K., told the Daily Mail. "There may be a stepfather or the child is having to live in two homes. That is all somewhat stressful and it is much more common nowadays than it was."

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The earliest signs of puberty are breast tissue development, body hair and menstruation, and since the 1960s, the average age girls began showing these signs was 12-and-a-half years old. Now, the age is 10. And these big body changes are sometimes difficult to deal with, Dr. Tabitha Randell, a researcher with Nottingham University Hospitals NHS trust, told the Daily Mail.

"We need to help parents deal with the physical and psychological consequences of early puberty which are very serious and can very distressing for the child," she said. "There is a strong link with early onset of sexual activity when they are not emotionally ready, and with teenage pregnancy for which already have the highest level in Europe."

Obesity also plays a large role in early onset puberty, and the increase of childhood obesity could mean more children going through it, researchers said.

"Speakers agreed that childhood obesity, or more specifically, increased body fat content, is the single most important factor that we know provides part of the explanation for advance in puberty (particularly in girls) in most countries," Sharpe told ABC News.

More than 12.5 million American children ages 2 through 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the number of obese children has tripled since 1980. Health care costs related to childhood obesity totaled $3 billion in 2009, according to a study published in Nature.

However, Sharpe told Fox News more research needs to be done before an exact cause of early onset puberty can be identified.

"The simple truth is we don't know why it is happening," he said. "Obesity is the biggest factor that we know of. [But] there's clearly something else. Is it environmental chemicals, is it societal stress? I would say on the evidence, environmental factors are not a major player."

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