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Sexual Abuse May Cause Early Puberty in Girls: Study

Premature changes can have lasting effects, such as depression, higher risk of some cancers, study says
(*this news item will not be available after 06/29/2017)
By Robert Preidt
Friday, March 31, 2017
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FRIDAY, March 31, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- It's common for parents to worry that their kids are growing up too fast. But in certain cases, early puberty in girls may be linked to sexual abuse, a small study suggests.

Pennsylvania State University researchers examined data from 84 girls with a history of sexual abuse and 89 girls with no history of abuse. Those who were abused entered puberty eight to 12 months earlier than those who weren't abused, the investigators found.

"Though a year's difference may seem trivial in the grand scheme of a life, this accelerated maturation has been linked to concerning consequences, including behavioral and mental health problems, and reproductive cancers," said study author Jennie Noll. She is director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Penn State.

Typically, children's physical and mental development occur in tandem.

"High-stress situations, such as childhood sexual abuse, can lead to increased stress hormones that jump-start puberty ahead of its standard biological timeline," Noll said in a university news release.

The researchers found that girls who'd been sexually abused tended to develop pubic hair a year before girls who hadn't been abused. And, breast development began eight months sooner for girls who'd been sexually abused.

Early puberty can have some lasting effects on health -- both physical and mental, the study authors noted.

"Due to increased exposure to estrogens over a longer period of time, premature physical development such as this has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers," Noll explained.

"Additionally, early puberty is seen as a potential contributor to increased rates of depression, substance abuse, sexual risk-taking and teenage pregnancy," she added.

The study wasn't designed to prove that sexual mistreatment is a direct cause of early puberty, it could only point to an association. However, the researchers said they adjusted the data to account for other factors that might have influenced the early development. They believe sexual abuse and the stress hormones related to that abuse are a cause of the girls' early puberty.

The findings were published recently in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

SOURCE: Penn State, news release, March 28, 2017

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