Attention Single Mothers!

Among the many mysteries that surround the working of the human body is the awkward transition from childhood to adolescence aka puberty. Several years of population and laboratory-based research have revealed that body weight and social development have a significant role to play in the onset of puberty, particularly for girls. But who would have thought that family structure and income collectively determine this development? Now a research by the University of California, Berkeley, reveals that girls brought up without a biological father tend to attain puberty earlier, especially if they come from higher-income households.

Published in September’s issue of the Journal of Public Health, the study reveals that in the absence of a biological father, young girls showed signs of early breast development among higher income families.  Interestingly, this held true even when body weight was factored in. Dr Julieanna Deardorff and her team, from UCB, examined 444 girls, in the San Fransisco area from different ethnicities, ages 6-8 years over a period of time examining the onset of puberty. Their care-givers (96 percent of which were mothers) were interviewed about the family income and presence of a biological father or another male influence. The study took care to ensure that it did not mistake body fat for breast development.

In addition to the above finding, the team discovered that pubic hair development was earlier in African-American girls, from higher-income families, with an absent father. According to Dr Deardorff, “the study examines these effects as not a direct influence of income alone but an interactive effect of incomes and fatherless parenting.” Unsure about what the reasons for this could be, researchers assume that it could be a result of poor maternal bonding as single career-oriented mothers might spend more time working. Other assumptions include exposure to environmental toxins from placenta-containing hair straighteners and beauty products. Technology, in the form of computers and video games, disrupt sleep patterns and expose these girls to artificial light, both of which have been linked to puberty.

444 girls may seem like a tiny sample size but not according to the team who claim that it is extremely difficult to get consent from mothers and daughters for such a private and detailed examination. Similar studies are also in the pipeline using sample sets from areas around Cincinnati and New York.

The findings from the study attract our attention to the effects of society on puberty-development. Dr Deardoff adds that unlike previous notions, “hormones alone do not have a direct linear affect on adolescents. Puberty is a result of interactive effects with peers and families. The complex results of this study create the need for more research on the interactive and combined effects of social and biological factors in this field.”

While the research only factored in the presence (or lack) of a biological father, it did not probe into why the family structure was this way. Further studies which delve deeper into this issue could perhaps throw more light on the understanding of this correlation. Domestic conflict, abuse and instability among higher-income families could be very closely linked to the outcomes of this research. This confirms the need for greater research into the issue.

“The hunt for an explanation to this trend is significant since girls who enter puberty earlier than their peers are not only at greater risk for reproductive cancers, they are also more likely to develop asthma and engage in higher risk sexual behaviors and substance abuse, so these studies have broader relevance to women’s health,” said Dr. Robert Hiatt, director of population science at University of San Fransisco’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, in a prepared statement.

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