A study found that the number of white girls going through puberty at a younger age has doubled since the late 1990s. Researchers are concerned because early puberty is considered a breast cancer risk factor -- it increases lifetime exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen and progesterone can cause breast cancer to develop and grow. Early puberty also has been linked to higher risk of other health problems including eating disorders, depression, suicide, uterine cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
As part of the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers consortium, 1,239 7- and 8-year-old girls of various races were evaluated for signs of puberty. Breast buds that can be felt with the hands (palpable) are a sign of puberty.
The researchers found:
- 10.4% of 7-year-old white girls had palpable breast buds compared to 5% of 7-year-old white girls in a 1997 study
- 18.3% of 8-year-old white girls had palpable breast buds compared to 10.5% of 8-year-old white girls in a 1997 study
- 23.4% of black and 14.9% of Hispanic 7-year-old girls had palpable breast buds
- 42.9% of black and 30.9% of Hispanic 8-year-old girls had palpable breast buds
Results showed that the number of 7- and 8-year-old black and Hispanic girls with signs of early puberty didn't increase since 1997. The reason for this difference isn't clear. Still, early puberty is much more common among black and Hispanic girls compared to white girls.
The researchers believe childhood obesity is a big reason for the increased number of white girls going through early puberty.
Still, it's likely that a number of factors are contributing to more white girls showing signs of puberty at a younger age. Some of these factors might be impossible to control. Helping your daughter or any other young girl in your life adopt good habits to support a healthy lifestyle, minimize her risk of early puberty, and reduce her future breast cancer risk makes a lot of sense. Healthy eating and exercise habits are two good places to start. For teen and tween girls, not smoking or drinking alcohol are also good habits to adopt.
If you're the parent of a teen or tween girl, make time to talk to your daughter about her breasts, normal breast development, and the facts about breast cancer risk in mothers and daughters. During your daughter's regular check-ups, you may want to ask her doctor about breast health and make sure your daughter is part of the conversation. This is especially important if you or someone your daughter knows has been diagnosed with breast cancer. If you've been diagnosed, it might help to have your doctor talk to your daughter about your diagnosis and what it means and doesn't mean for her. Talking to your daughter about breast health and diet and lifestyle choices she can make is the best way to keep your daughter's risk of breast cancer as low as it can be.
Breastcancer.org Chief Medical Officer Dr. Marisa Weiss and her daughter, Isabel, have written the book Taking Care of Your "Girls:" A Breast Health Guide for Girls, Teens, and In-Betweens. They talk candidly about breast development and breast health -- separating myths from facts and detailing steps everyone can take to improve breast health and reduce breast cancer risk over a lifetime.