According to new information from the University of Glasgow, girls who develop breasts abnormally early are at risk for a host of physical problems and diseases later in life. In addition, they may suffer from social and psychological issues in their preteen and teenage years.
First of all, you might be wondering what is meant by "abnormally early." While the majority of girls begin to develop breasts around the age of 10, many develop earlier or later. For years, it's been thought that this is perfectly normal. However, it's been discovered that early puberty coincides with a heightened risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and reproductive cancer.
As of now, doctors only slow the onset of puberty if it begins before the age of seven. In these cases, early puberty is linked to hormonal imbalances. That said, scientists believe that by stunting early breast development, girls could avoid myriad health issues later in life.
By studying women and girls at various stages of life, researchers found that those who developed breasts before the age of 10 were 20 percent more likely to develop breast cancer later in life.
Could scientists really slow the development of breasts in prepubescent girls? As the University of Glasgow discovered, controlling a molecule known as ACKR2 could be the key.
As breasts grow, so do specialized cells called epithelial branches. These branches make up the shape and size of breasts, creating a structure for fatty tissue to rest upon. Although the epithelial branches stop growing once someone has reached adulthood, they start up again before and after pregnancy, allowing milk-producing glands to grow.
Immune cells, known as macrophages, work with the breasts to facilitate these changes. However, before macrophages move into the breasts at the time of puberty, they are blocked by ACKR2. If physicians could somehow increase the time of this block, they might be able to stop girls from developing breasts early, as well as developing breast cancer later in life.
However, breast cancer isn't the only health issue that girls who develop breasts early can face. The study also found these women to have a heightened risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, among other things.
In fact, the study lists 48 separate health issues that have been linked to early onset puberty. As the findings state:
"Puberty timing in women or men was associated with higher risks for 48 adverse outcomes, across a range of cancers, cardio-metabolic, gynecological / obstetric, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and neuro-cognitive categories.
These included notable novel associations for early menarche [first menstruation] with higher risks for: early natural menopause, uterine fibroids, hiatus hernia, osteoarthritis, and poor sleep quality."
While these health issues are of utmost concern, it's important not to forget that early puberty can also lead to various psychological issues.
Many women who experience early puberty have reported instances of social isolation and ridicule.
As the National Institute of Health and Wellness in Finland discovered in 2003, early puberty and the social issues that come along with it can lead to mental health problems in teenage years, including eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and addiction. Their study stated that these "symptoms were more common the earlier puberty occurred."
And the bad news doesn't end there. Early puberty has also been linked to earlier sexual activity and cases of teen pregnancy.
It's important to note that pregnancy is not the only consequence of early sexual activity.
Nor is it the most harmful. While there are many social implications that come with being a teen mom, as well as a road bump in education plans, early sexual activity also puts young girls at an increased risk for sexual abuse, emotional damage, and STDs. As the University of Cambridge published in 2016, these factors can lead to reproductive, psychiatric, and even cardiometabolic consequences later in life.