Rise in Early Puberty Cases During Pandemic Baffles Scientists

Italy was the first nation to feel the grip of COVID-19 lockdowns, and in 2020, researchers at Florence’s Anna Meyer Children’s University Hospital made a perplexing observation: an unprecedented number of young girls were presenting with signs of early-onset puberty. While early puberty cases are not new, their surge was remarkable. Since the 1990s, early-onset, or “precocious,” puberty has been on the rise globally, characterized by the premature emergence of secondary sexual characteristics like breasts, pubic hair, and voice changes in girls aged 8 or younger, and boys aged 9 or younger. Despite ongoing research, pinpointing a singular cause or mechanism for this phenomenon has remained elusive. However, the unexplained spike in cases, witnessed in Italy and beyond during the pandemic, has reignited interest among experts, encouraging a reexamination of prevailing theories.

Reports have poured in from clinics worldwide, documenting a twofold to threefold increase in precocious puberty diagnoses post-March 2020. For instance, in China’s Henan Province, medical facilities recorded five times the cases seen in 2018.

The Quest for Answers

Though the root cause of premature development remains uncertain, investigations have highlighted a constellation of factors contributing to the issue. Stress, trauma, poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, and resultant weight gain have all been linked to early puberty. Pandemic-induced measures imposed additional stressors on children, creating an environment conducive to elevated precocious puberty rates.

The Implications of Early Puberty

Girls are most frequently affected by precocious puberty due to the visible nature of their changes. The emergence of breasts can be a public and sometimes uncomfortable experience, particularly within environments like the American school system. Early development may invite unwanted attention and pose emotional challenges, especially for younger children lacking adequate context and understanding. The psychological consequences can extend to mood disorders and behavioral issues. Beyond emotional distress, early puberty also raises the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and specific reproductive cancers later in life. If identified early, treatment options such as hormonal puberty blockers are available.

Hormones like leptin, produced by fatty tissue and more concentrated during puberty, are thought to play a role. A 2012 study indicated that BMI data could account for 40% of the variance in menarche timing. Additionally, early menarche correlates with lower birth weight and rapid childhood weight gain, supporting the theory that body composition physiology influences the initiation of puberty. Given the escalating global childhood obesity crisis, it’s conceivable that the rise in precocious puberty mirrors this trend.