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Precocious Puberty: July 25, 2012

Health experts call it early onset puberty or precocious puberty. Whatever you call it, they are seeing more of it - young girls developing earlier than ever before.

School teacher Skye Fischer sees in the classroom what health experts are seeing in statistics, precocious or early puberty.

“It’s really a distraction in academia when we’re dealing with, you know, bodies developing at 10, 11, 12. Girls are getting breasts so early,” says Fischer.

The average age of puberty onset dropped 5 years in the last century. Addressing it falls to pediatric endocrinologists.

“We see a ton of patients with growth issues, early puberty, adrenal gland issues,” says Lee Memorial Health System pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Asjad Khan.

It’s not uncommon to see a girl as young as 7 begin puberty. The first signs are breast tissue development, body hair development, followed by menstruation. Doctors link it to childhood obesity.

“When you see girls, especially pre-teen girls, who are overweight we see an increased risk of going into early puberty.  So there’s definitely factors that increase early puberty in kids who are overweight. And what we find is in your fat cells, you tend to make more estrogen,” says Dr. Khan.

Hormonal changes brought on by weight also impact boys.

“Boys and men who are overweight will tend to have gynecomastia, breast enlargement due to the estrogen coming from the fat cells.  All that estrogen coming in, for boys and girls, will lead to early puberty,” says Dr. Khan.

Hand in hand with obesity and early puberty is type 2 diabetes. While diet and exercise are the preferred treatment, a diabetes drug may slow early puberty and reduce insulin resistance.

“Metaformin is usually the first one that we talk about.  There’s two benefits to Metformin in these kids: it helps them decrease the insulin resistance but also helps them lose some weight.

Fischer thinks it begins with education.

“We’re not teaching kids how to make their own food.  We’re not teaching kids how to grow their own vegetables,” says Fischer.

“It’s a vicious cycle – the obesity is making the puberty, the puberty is making the obesity worse,” says Dr. Khan.

Targeting obesity may help take care of this developing problem.