Poverty linked to early puberty in boys

A study by The Murdoch Children's Research Institute has found boys from very disadvantaged homes are more than four times more likely to start puberty early.

Children, especially boys, from disadvantaged homes are more likely to hit puberty early and could face poorer health later in life as a result, an Australian study shows.

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) project found boys who grew up in very disadvantaged homes were four times more likely to start puberty at age 10 or 11.

The risk of early puberty for girls who grew up in lower socio-economic homes was double.

While the health implications of early on-set puberty are not yet known, research has previously associated it to emotional behavioural and social problems in adolescents, says lead researcher Associate Professor Ying Sun.

She says their findings now raise the possibility the timing of puberty may play a role in the links between early social disadvantage and health problems later in life.

"If our research can improve the understanding of these links, we can potentially inform new public health initiatives that improve the health and wellbeing of all children for the rest of their lives, said lead researcher Associate Professor Ying Sun.

MCRI researchers surveyed about 3700 children recruited at birth as part of the Growing Up in Australia study, to investigate if social determinants were playing a role.

Parents were asked to report on signs of children's puberty at age eight to nine and 10 to 11 years.

These included a growth spurt, pubic hair and skin changes, plus breast growth and menstruation in girls and voice deepening and facial hair in boys.

The paper, published in the journal Pediatrics, compared the family socio-economic position of those who started puberty early with others who started on time.

At 10/11 years of age, about 19 per cent of boys and 21 per cent of girls were classified in the early puberty group.

Surprisingly, boys from very disadvantaged homes had 4.2 times the risk of developing early and the same factors increased the risk of early puberty for girls, although the reason for this is not yet known.

"Few studies have focused on boys, so this is very interesting," said Professor Sun.

What triggers puberty is still a "big mystery" but it's thought evolutionary reasons are thought to be one explanation for the link between disadvantage and early puberty.

In the face of hardship, children may be programmed to start the reproductive process earlier to ensure their genes are passed on to the next generation.

"Human beings are very sensitive to a challenging childhood environment", said Professor Sun.

"We now know quite a lot more about the switches for the pubertal process and think that childhood disadvantage is one of a number of factors, including prematurity and being overweight early in childhood that switch the process on," said Professor Sun.

3 min read
Published 24 May 2017 at 1:04am
Source: AAP