A 2010 study showed that 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, 10 percent of white girls and two percent of Asian girls had started developing breasts by the time they were seven. © spotmatikphoto – Fotolia.com
by Katti Gray, theGrio
The pediatrician’s first reaction to then second-grader Kayla Haye’s budding breasts—a sign of the child’s premature puberty—was to consider placing her on therapeutic hormones.
“A 7-year-old on hormone medication? Well that’s not gonna happen,” said Adriane McDonald-Haye, Kayla’s mom, recalling her response to that suggestion eight years ago. “Just the idea of putting my child on hormones triggered all kinds of concerns.”
So the Brooklyn, N.Y. mother took a different course of action, scouring the web and probing other parents on the topic. Ultimately, she was persuaded by claims—including from some physicians—that consumption of hormone-laden meat and poultry was linked to early-onset puberty, which is on the rise in general and more prevalent among black children.
“I changed Kayla’s diet to one that is as organic as possible,” McDonald-Haye said. “I actually have a pack of organic chicken wings in my fridge right now. We cheat every so often, eating fast food. But, overall, I try to stay as natural as possible.”
McDonald-Haye is aware of the continuing debate over the effects of hormone-infused meat and dairy products on growing bodies. Nevertheless, she credits her better-safe-than-sorry dietary overhaul with delaying Kayla’s first period, which she got when she was 10. That’s roughly 2.5 years ahead of the national average.
Indeed, researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, in a 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics, found that 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, 10 percent of white girls and two percent of Asian girls had started developing breasts by the time they were seven.
At a time when girls as young as five are showing signs of early-onset puberty—defined as occurring in females younger than eight and males younger than nine—parents are well advised to be extra vigilant, said Dr. Susanne Tropez-Sims, a pediatrician at Meharry Medical College Nashville, Tenn.
Fearing the potential effects of hormones used in the meat, poultry and dairy industries—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows six different sex hormones for meat and dairy production—Tropez-Sims only serves organic milk or hormone-free, grass- and grain-fed meat and poultry to her own grandchildren.
A 2010 study by British researchers, published in Public Health Nutrition, concluded that high consumption of animal proteins did contribute to early puberty.
Tropez-Sims oversaw Meharry’s participation in a national study, published by Pediatrics last November, of more than 4,000 boys, showing that they too are entering puberty earlier. As a physician and researcher, she agrees with most scientists that more study is needed on why increasingly younger children are growing breasts, pubic hair and so forth, and whether hormone-infused foods play a role.
Absent any rock-solid answers on that front, researchers have explored other causes. Some studies, including one in the February 2008 issue ofPediatrics, have suggested that obesity is a driver of early onset puberty. But that doesn’t explain what transpired with Kayla, who was a reed-thin second-grader. Now 15 and a liturgical dancer at her family’s church, she stands at 5’ 6” and weighs a lean 120 pounds.
“In the 19th Century, the age of menarche was 15,” Tropez-Sims said. “Today, we may be looking at environmental chemicals, steroids and so on that are causing puberty to begin in progressively younger kids. And it seems reasonable to ask this question: If they’re feeding pigs and cows and chickens growth hormones and other chemicals to make them plumper, bigger, is that also making our kids plumper, making them mature faster? … There’s not been enough science to fully link hormones in the meat, but some of us are extrapolating that that’s just what may be happening.”
Tracking children who eat no hormone-laden foods against those whose diets are full of them would provide the most conclusive proof of what’s going on, she said. But such a study has never been conducted. And doing one raises ethical concerns, given what some consider the potential risks faced by children in the latter group, Tropez-Sims added.
“Who will enroll their daughter in a study where they might be randomized to a diet high in food with hormones that can negatively impact health?” asks Dr. Peter Tebben, an endocrinologist specializing in pediatric and adolescent medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “A lot of the controversy around this subject [exists] because we simply don’t have all the answers.”
What is certain, he said, is that getting one’s period earlier raises one’s lifetime exposure to estrogen and, consequently, for developing breast cancer.
“On the flip side, estrogen is good for bone health … But that probably would not outweigh your concern about breast cancer,” Tebben said.
Apart from that risk, he continued, there’s “the psycho-social issue of starting to menstruate in first or second grade” and, especially for girls, the challenge of looking older than they actually are.
Another concern, Tropez-Sims said, is the risk that some kids, given that early puberty stirs the libido, also will become sexually active too soon.
Premature puberty can be interrupted with monthly, quarterly or yearly shots of drugs such as leuprolide, a synthetic hormone that suppresses natural hormones controlling puberty. That was the kind of option McDonald-Haye was unwilling to entertain. Even in hindsight, she believes she made the right decision.
“Kayla didn’t have any additional [breast] tissue growth for another two years,” McDonald-Haye recalled.
During her daughter’s next yearly check-up, the pediatrician who’d identified the prematurely developing breast tissue was surprised by Kayla’s physical appearance. “She was, like, ‘Wow.’ She thought Kayla’s breasts would have been much larger by then,” McDonald-Haye said.
She continued: “I’m not a scientist. I cannot give you the language that a doctor would. But, when Kayla was seven, with those little buds just beginning to show, I was thinking long-term about what all of this means for my child. I wanted her to be healthy, and for her body to do what it does naturally. If some unnatural things were getting in the way of that, I also wanted to be proactive.”
New York-based freelancer Katti Gray specializes in reporting health, higher education and criminal justice. Her byline has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Reuters, Newsday, Ms., Essence, Ebony, CNN.com, ABCNews.com and other national and regional publications. Follow her on twitter@KattiGray.