Little Women, Big Risks

"Little women" -- physically speaking -- are increasingly attending our primary schools. Early puberty among girls is on the rise, with as many as 15% of girls in the U.S. starting puberty by age seven. For African Americans, the rate is even higher at nearly 25%. Now we learn from a new Harvard School of Public Health study that one of the culprits of this frightening trend is sugary beverages.

We have known that excess weight is one cause of early puberty and that sweetened drinks contribute significantly to weight gain in children. But this new research shows that even for girls who are not overweight, drinking beverages with added sugar can lead to earlier menstruation. The Harvard researchers found that girls consuming 1.5 servings of sugary drinks daily had their first period nearly three months earlier than girls who drank those amounts twice a week or less. While entering puberty just a few months earlier may not seem like a big deal, it is when viewed in the context of being one of a number of factors that are pushing the age of puberty down further into childhood. The average age of onset of puberty in girls in 1920 was 14.6, in 1980 it was 12.5, and in 2010 it dropped to age 10.5.

It's disconcerting to see little girls in women's bodies, but downright scary when considering the physical and psychological risks posed by this phenomenon. Girls who go through early puberty are at a substantially higher risk for developing breast cancer in adulthood than the 12.4% risk the average woman faces over her lifetime. The earlier breasts form, the sooner they interact with hormones inside and outside the body as well as chemicals in products that are hormone disrupters. This longer interaction period increases a woman's chance of developing breast cancer. Additionally, the combination of early puberty and obesity, more common in African American girls, is associated with a disproportionately higher risk of developing early onset triple-negative breast cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of the disease.

But breast cancer is not the only downside of early puberty. There is also evidence that it can lead to a host of psychological and behavioral problems including depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

While sugary drinks are not alone in causing early puberty, they are one of the more controllable factors. That's not to say it's easy to remove them entirely from our children's diets, but we can at least remove them from our homes -- where, according to the CDC, more than half of these drinks are consumed. We should also work within our communities to ban these beverages from our schools and replace them with water and other unsweetened drinks. And while we're at it, let's also help girls eat healthier foods and exercise regularly.

We have to let our girls have their girlhood and not be pushed into premature womanhood. It's not healthy for them as children and continues to affect them as adults.