Of all the childhood obesity epidemic’s aspects, one of the most alarming is the ever-decreasing age of puberty. Worse, each condition exacerbates the other. Obesity brings on early puberty, which in turn brings on more obesity. Side issues like low self-esteem kick in to heighten the damage even further. Nobody knows yet how it all works, but the results are undeniable.
Last summer, the American Journal of Epidemiology published research from Kaiser Permanente concerning something that had not been looked at very closely, “the association between maternal pregnancy or pre-pregnancy factors and the timing of puberty in daughters.” It was already known that early puberty adds to the risk of type 2 diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and other health problems.
Here is the gist of Kaiser Permanente findings:
Researchers found that girls whose mothers were overweight before their pregnancy and had gestational diabetes were 2.5 times more likely to have earlier onset pubic hair development than their peers whose mothers had normal weight and no gestational diabetes. This association was independent of race or ethnicity, household income and the mother’s age at her first menstrual cycle.
If early maturity is considered a liability, which it pretty much is, the news gets even worse. Puberty kicks in early whether the daughter herself is obese or not. Maternal obesity already happened, and can’t be changed. Exposure, as a fetus, to gestational diabetes already happened, and can’t be taken back.
Historically, researchers have found links between early puberty and race or ethnicity. To whatever extent that has been so in humanity’s past, it no longer applies. Things have changed — and no one is entirely certain about what things — but the numbers show that BMI is a more accurate predictor of early puberty than ethnicity or race.
Dr. Frank Biro, whose home base is Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, was lead investigator for a study whose collaborators included Kaiser Permanente’s research division, New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and the California Department of Public Health. They told the press:
Researchers […] examined the ages of 1,239 girls at the onset of breast development and the impact of body mass index and race/ethnicity. The girls ranged in age from 6 to 8 years at enrollment and were followed at regular intervals from 2004 to 2011. Researchers used well-established criteria of pubertal maturation, including the five stages of breast development known as the Tanner Breast Stages.
The girls were followed longitudinally, which involved multiple regular visits for each girl. Researchers said this method provided a good perspective of what happened to each girl and when it occurred.
The expression “kids having kids” is all too accurate, and part of the reason is because the average girl is capable of becoming pregnant at a younger age than was true for her older sister or her mother. But the sheer physiological capacity to conceive is not the only causative factor.
For whatever reasons, early-maturing girls show up with a lot of other problems, like depression and low self-esteem — psychological stumbling blocks which of course are made worse by obesity. Connections are seen between premature ripeness and lower academic achievement, and what are politely called “norm-breaking behaviors.” In other words, early-maturing girls are apt to engage in exactly the kinds of behaviors that result in pregnancy.
It is not an isolated problem, either geographically or demographically. Dr. Biro and other experts in the field discuss the probability that they will be forced to “redefine the ages for both early and late maturation in girls.” The necessity to redefine norms to match up with an ever-worsening reality is not a happy prospect.
The implications of these and other studies make it clear that obesity is a problem with the potential to reverberate through succeeding generations. Even if a universal panacea or magic bullet were found tomorrow, enough harm has already been set in motion to affect the human race for millennia.
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Source: “Obesity, gestational diabetes in mothers linked to early onset of puberty in daughters,” ScienceDaily.com, 06/06/16
Source: “Earlier onset of puberty in girls linked to obesity,” EurekAlert.org, 11/04/13
Photo credit: Andrew Vargas (Vato Bob) via Visualhunt/CC BY