This editorial is excerpted from Thursday's San Bernardino County Sun.
Too many children are born into malnutrition in this world. But here, even in what is for the richest country in the world a horrific economic downturn, what do millions of children face? An epidemic of obesity. The latest ill effect of the fattening of America is the news that it's causing an even earlier onset of puberty among pre-teen girls.
Actually, not just pre-teen — pre-double-digit girls. More girls — particularly those who are overweight — are starting to develop physical signs of sexual maturity at ages 7 and 8.
This latest study, unlike some undertaken a decade ago that also showed the earlier onset of puberty among girls in our country, concentrates on precocious breast development rather than overly early menstrual cycles. But endocrinologists say that the results are extremely troubling.
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About 1,200 girls aged 6 to 8 from Cincinnati, East Harlem and San Francisco were examined from 2004 to 2006 by two female pediatricians or nurse practitioners who felt for the presence of breast tissue.
Among the 7-year-olds, about 10.4 percent of white girls, 23.4 percent of black girls and almost 15 percent of Latinas had started developing breasts, according to researchers writing in the September issue of Pediatrics magazine. Among 8-year-olds, it was 18.3 percent of white girls, about 43 percent of black girls and just less than 31 percent of Latinas.
The upshot for young women's health? There are real physical concerns.
Longer exposure to hormones associated with reproduction increases the risk of breast cancer. But more than that, the medical researchers said, are the mental and "psycho-social" strains: "They really miss out on a good part of their childhood," said Dr. Marcia Herman- Giddens, adjunct professor of public health at the University of North Carolina.
"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."
Other culprits are being investigated besides weight. Parents and scientists alike have long suspected environmental factors — including hormones creeping into the food chain — as a contributor to early-onset puberty.
But the connection with fat is clear: "Girls who go into puberty earlier have a higher BMI (body-mass index) than those who go into it later, and studies have shown that they typically persist in having a higher BMI throughout life," said Dr. Frank Biro, director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati's Children's Hospital and the study's lead author.
Parents, it's up to you. Daily outdoor exercise for your children is a must. Protect them from overeating. Stop with the fast food, already.