In addition, developing early is associated with psychological and social pressures that young girls may be ill-equipped to handle, including sexual advances from older boys and men, said Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens, adjunct professor of public health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Girls may look older than their age, but mentally, they are much the same as other 7-and 8-year old girls, said Herman-Giddens, who led the earlier study.
"They really miss out on a good part of their childhood," she said. "When my study came out, I received very sad, poignant letters and e-mails from young women who had been early developers, how horrible it was to have older boys and young men hitting on them and sexual feelings they didn't understand."
What's driving the earlier maturation? Increasing weight at a young age seems to be a main culprit, Biro said. Girls who developed breasts early tended to have a higher body-mass index (BMI) than those who didn't. Though much is still unknown about how high BMIs kick start puberty, fat cells produce leptin, a hormone involved in the onset of pubertal maturation, Biro noted.
Biro and his colleagues are also conducting analyses of the girl's blood and urine to determine if environmental exposures to chemicals could be contributing, but those results have yet to be completed.
And even if environmental exposures are found to play a role, the association between excess weight gain and early onset of puberty is very strong, Biro said.
"Girls who go into puberty earlier have a higher BMI than those who go into it later, and studies have shown that they typically persist in having a higher BMI throughout life," Biro said.
If a child is showing early signs of puberty, experts recommend an evaluation by a pediatrician or an endocrinologist to rule out medical problems.
Parents and pediatricians can also help girls maintain a
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