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Now puberty starts at 9! Boys in U.S. reaching adolescence younger, study says

5 min read

By Associated Press Reporter

PUBLISHED:18:57 EST, 20  October 2012| UPDATED:23:16 EST, 20 October 2012

 

When it comes to the birds and the bees, some  parents may want to have that talk with their boys a little sooner than they  expected.

Researchers have found signs of puberty in  American boys up to two years earlier than previously reported – age 9 on  average for blacks, 10 for whites and Hispanics. Other studies have suggested  that girls, too, are entering puberty younger.

Why is this happening? Theories range from  higher levels of obesity and inactivity to chemicals in food and water, all of  which might interfere with normal hormone production. But those are just  theories, and they remain unproven.

Puberty 

Early: Researchers have found signs of puberty in  American boys up to two years earlier than previously reported (stock photo)

Doctors say earlier puberty is not  necessarily cause for concern. And some experts question whether the trend is  even real.

Dr William Adelman, an adolescent medicine  specialist in the Baltimore area, says the new research is the first to find  early, strong physical evidence that boys are maturing earlier. But he added  that the study still isn’t proof and said it raises a lot of  questions.

Earlier research based on 20-year-old  national data also suggested a trend toward early puberty in boys, but it was  based on less rigorous information. The new study involved testes measurements  in more than 4,000 boys. Enlargement of testes is generally the earliest sign of  puberty in boys.

The study was published online Saturday in  Pediatrics to coincide with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ national  conference in New Orleans.

Dr Neerav Desai, an adolescent medicine  specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said he’s seen a subtle trend  toward slightly earlier puberty in boys. He said it’s important for parents and  doctors to be aware so they can help children emotionally prepare for the  changes that come with puberty.

Doctors generally consider puberty early if  it begins before age 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys.

Boys are more likely than girls to have an  underlying physical cause for early puberty. But it’s likely that most, if not  all, of the boys in the study were free of any conditions that might explain the  results, said lead author Marcia Herman-Giddens, a researcher at the University  of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Puberty 

Sooner: Other studies have suggested that girls, too,  are entering puberty younger (stock photo)

Problems such as thyroid abnormalities and  brain tumors have been linked to early puberty. But boys with chronic medical  conditions or who were using medicines that could affect puberty were excluded  from the research.

In girls, early puberty has been linked with  increased chances for developing breast cancer, but whether it poses health  risks for boys is uncertain. Some scientists think early testes development may  increase the risk for testicular cancer, but a recent research analysis found no  such link.

‘If it’s true that boys are starting puberty  younger, it’s not clear that means anything negative or has any implications for  long-term,’ said Adelman, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’  committee on adolescence.

For the new study, researchers recruited  pediatricians in 41 states who participate in the academy’s office-based  research network. Doctors asked parents and boys aged 6 to 16 to take part  during regular checkups. The visits took place between 2005 and  2010.

Half of the boys were white. The rest were  almost evenly divided among blacks and Hispanics.

On average, white boys started puberty at age  10, a year and a half earlier than what has long been considered the normal  average. For black boys, the average age of 9 was about two years earlier than  in previous research. Among Hispanics, age 10 was similar to previous research  that only involved Mexican-American boys. The new study included boys from other  Hispanic backgrounds.

Testes enlargement was seen at age 6 in 9  percent of white boys, almost 20 percent of blacks and 7 percent of  Hispanics.

Pubic hair growth, another early sign of  puberty, started about a year after testes enlargement in all groups but still  earlier than previously thought.

In girls, breast development is the first  sign, and recent research suggested that it starts at age 7 in about 10 per cent  of white girls, 23 per cent of blacks and 15 per cent of Hispanics. That’s  substantially higher than rates reported more than a decade ago.

But some experts have questioned methods used  in studies in girls, noting that the age when girls start menstruating has not  changed much and remains around age 12 on average.

Dr Dianne Deplewski, a pediatric  endocrinologist at the University of Chicago, has not seen any increase in boys  referred to her for signs of early puberty. She said it’s possible that the new  study results were skewed by families who brought their boys to the doctor  because they already had concerns about their health.

The study had other limitations. Testes were  measured just once, and doctors weren’t randomly recruited but volunteered to  participate. That means it’s possible that those with early maturing patients  were overly represented, but Herman-Giddens said it’s unlikely boys in the study  were different from those in the general U.S. population.

She said the research methods weren’t perfect  but that they’re the best to date. She also stressed that the results shouldn’t  be used to establish a ‘new normal’ for the start of puberty in  boys.

‘Just because this is happening doesn’t mean  this is normal or healthy,’ the researcher said.

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