Risk factors may include unhealthy pandemic-related lifestyle changes.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society, the number of girls diagnosed with precocious puberty rose significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The increase has been attributed to potential risk factors like extended screen time and decreased physical activity. Precocious puberty is a condition where children begin to undergo physical changes into adulthood prematurely.
For girls, this means experiencing changes like breast buds before the age of 8. There have been links between COVID-19 and endocrine-related conditions such as obesity, a known factor that can lead to early puberty in girls.
Factors Contributing to Early Puberty
“Our study confirms the rise in precocious puberty diagnoses during COVID-19 and identifies contributing factors such as poor eating and exercise habits, too much screen time, and impaired sleep,” said study author Mohamad Maghnie, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Genoa and the Giannina Gaslini Institute in Genoa, Italy. “We found an increase in weight gain among girls diagnosed with precocious puberty during the pandemic, and rapid increase in body weight is associated with advanced pubertal development.”
The researchers evaluated the incidence of precocious puberty before and after the COVID-19 pandemic in 133 girls from Italy. They also examined the possible relationship between COVID-19 and pandemic-related lifestyle changes.
They found 72 cases of precocious puberty before the COVID-19 pandemic (January 2016-March 2020) and 61 cases between March 2020 and June 2021. That equates to four new cases per month.
The researchers also found girls diagnosed with precocious puberty during the COVID-19 pandemic tended to have higher body mass index (BMI) scores than girls who did not. These girls spent an average of 2 hours per day using electronic devices, and 88.5% of them stopped any physical activity.
Underlying Causes and Study Contributors
“The role of stress, social isolation, increased conflicts between parents, economic status, and the increased use of hand and surface sanitizers represent potentially further interesting hypotheses as to why early puberty is increasing in youth,” Maghnie said. “Although, the consequence of biological adaptation cannot be entirely ruled out.”
Reference: “Precocious Puberty Diagnoses Spike, COVID-19 Pandemic, and Body Mass Index: Findings From a 4-year Study” by Daniela Fava, Carlotta Pepino, Valentina Tosto, Roberto Gastaldi, Alessia Pepe, Dalila Paoloni, Marina Francesca Strati, Alessia Angelelli, Andrea Calandrino, Caterina Tedesco, Tiziana Camia, Anna Elsa Maria Allegri, Giuseppa Patti, Emilio Casalini, Marta Bassi, Maria Grazia Calevo, Flavia Napoli and Mohamad Maghnie, 03 August 2023, Journal of the Endocrine Society.
The other authors of this study are Daniela Fava, Tiziana Camia, Giuseppa Patti and Flavia Napoli of the University of Genoa and the Giannina Gaslini Institute; Carlotta Pepino, Alessia Pepe, Dalila Paoloni, Marina Francesca Strati, Alessia Angelelli, Andrea Calandrino, Emilio Casalini, and Marta Bassi of the University of Genoa in Genoa, Italy; Valentina Tosto of the Giannina Gaslini Institute and the University of Perugia Medical School in Perugia, Italy; and Roberto Gastaldi, Caterina Tedesco, Anna Elsa, Maria Allegri and Maria Grazia Calevo of the Giannina Gaslini Institute.
The study received funding from the Ministry of Health of Italy.