In what had to be one of the most awkward studies to both participate in and administer, Danish researchers studied the onset of breast development in 2,095 European girls. Let's hope that was self-reported. All pedophilic weirdness aside, the researchers found something very interesting: the average age of breast development in European girls has dropped one year, from 10.8 to 9.8 years.
As a girl who didn't develop breasts until about 16 -- and even then that point could be argued (I love you Victoria's Secret gel bras!) -- the thought of 9-year-olds with boobs was shocking enough to me. The researchers, however, not caring about my chest size or lack thereof, were concerned because breast development is one of the earliest signs of puberty in girls and the marked decrease has implications far beyond training bras next to the Littlest Pet Shop display.
After controlling for BMI and the age of menarche (hello Aunt Flo!), the researchers discovered that neither body weight nor menstruation was causing the earlier breast development. Which leaves us with two serious implications:
1) The environment, particularly estrogenic compounds like the much vilified bisphenol-A (BPA), is affecting girls' hormonal development. While this has largely been speculated previously and more research would be needed to proclaim a direct link, this research does lend some credence to this theory.
2) While the average age of menstruation has held steady for the past 50 or so years at about 12 years of age, puberty as defined by breast development begins earlier, meaning girls now endure a longer period of awkwardness and angst. And to anyone who thinks my use of "endure" to be hyperbolic, well, you have obviously never been a girl in the throes of puberty.
Researchers sort of helpfully concluded,
"The concern is that early puberty is linked with higher breast cancer risk in adulthood. Early puberty has also been linked with social problems and depression, and is associated with high-risk behaviors in adolescence such as alcohol and drug use and unprotected sex. It's not clear whether these concerns are the result of physiological changes that influence behavior or are explained by the social pressures girls encounter when their bodies mature.
"Whether or not these associations apply to girls who develop breasts at younger ages remain speculative,'' Dr. Aksglaede said. "Probably, the majority of these girls will mature without any side effects. The problem is that we do not know."
Somehow parents of teen girls are not comforted.