The Disturbing Rise of Precocious Puberty

February 27, 2016

I’m going to ask you to do something painful right now: think back to hitting puberty. Ouch. This is often an awkward time to look back on, as you recall adjusting to the changes in your body, developing an interest in dating and comparing yourself to friends.

For most of us, the onset of puberty happened around middle school age. But what if these changes began happening when you were just in second or first grade — or even kindergarten? What would it be like to have a talk about sex and hormones while you’re still attending playing dress-up or start growing facial hair while playing with toy cars?

Unfortunately, that’s no longer a hypothetical situation. Across the country, girls and boys alike are going through precocious puberty, and it means a whole lot more than upgrading from a training bra earlier than the previous generation. From a higher chance of being clinically depressed to an increased risk of certain types of cancers, precocious puberty is taking a toll on our nation’s youth.

Everyone Goes Through Puberty — What’s the Big Deal?

“Precocious” isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s used mostly to positively describe children who are unusually mature in their mental development. When it comes to puberty, however, the word signifies premature physical development. What’s wrong with developing a little earlier? To answer that, we’re going to backtrack a bit.

Most of us are familiar with the physical signs of puberty, like hair growing in different places, menstruation in girls and voice changes in boys. But there’s a lot going on inside the body during puberty, too.

Puberty actually begins when the brain, in an area known as the hypothalamus, begins releasing gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH. The hormone then travels to the pituitary gland. This small gland below the brain actually produces hormones that control other glands in the body. The pituitary gland then releases two other puberty hormones, luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). All these hormones traveling around the body brings about puberty, and what happens next depends on gender.

In boys, hormones travel to the testes, alerting the body that it’s time to begin producing sperm and testosterone. Boys, who have been able to have an erection since infancy, can now ejaculate.

In girls, the hormones travel to the ovaries and signal that it’s time to start maturing and producing eggs. The hormones also begin producing estrogen, which leads to a girl’s body developing into a more “woman-like” figure as her body prepares for pregnancy. The main event for girls during this time is the start of menarche, or her first period, and irregular periods in the beginning. She’s now able to become pregnant.

As you likely remember, there are also quite a few emotional changes that occur during this transitioning time. Mood swings, anxiety about bodies, sexual feelings and exploration and other “teen emotions” become prevalent during this time.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the first menstruation cycle for girls happened around ages 16 and 17. Today, the average age is younger than 13 years old. But for many girls — and scientists aren’t quite sure why it seems to affect mainly girls and not boys — precocious puberty is happening at an even younger age.

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