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A soaring number of girls started puberty early during the pandemic, which could be due to stress or reduced physical activity,

A study looked at 133 girls in Italy referred to a specialist paediatric unit because their chest had started developing before the age of eight.

In the four years before the pandemic, from January 2016 to March 2020, 72 girls were diagnosed with 'rapidly progressive' early puberty — where, for example, their height was increasing far too fast or they had a high level of hormones linked to adolescence.

That meant less than two girls a month were being identified as rapidly going through puberty far too young.

But, in the shorter period between March 2020 and June 2021, that had leapt to almost four girls a month being diagnosed — 61 in total.

Researchers note that during this period, when Italy, like the UK, was largely living under lockdowns, the girls seen spent an average of two hours a day using electronic devices, and 88.5 per cent ceased all physical activity.

There is a significant lack of knowledge about the causes of children going through puberty early, but some experts have suggested the blue light from screens and a lack of exercise could disrupt girls' normal hormonal development.

Dr Mohamad Maghnie, who led the study from the University of Genoa and the Giannina Gaslini Institute in Italy, said: 'The role of stress, social isolation, increased conflicts between parents, economic status and the increased use of hand and surface sanitisers represent potentially further interesting hypotheses as to why early puberty is increasing in youth.

Comment: These factors above will have a detrimental impact on physiology; including a weakened immune system, an excess of stress hormones, and so on.

'There is an interesting evolutionary hypothesis that, when girls are very stressed, they have their period early in order to reproduce and protect the future of the species.'

Children generally enter puberty earlier than in the past because rates of obesity are higher, and carrying too much fat can disrupt the hormones which determine when a child becomes a teenager.

Comment: This will be one factor, however children are subject to a variety of stressors in their environment, including the chemicals in their food, in addition to epigenetic and psychological stressors, all of which will impact their health and development.

However the study did not find a significant difference in the weight of girls diagnosed as going through puberty early before the pandemic and during it.

There is also a chance that girls' parents, spending more time at home with them during lockdowns, were more likely to notice early signs of puberty, so got their daughters diagnosed earlier.

Comment: However, at the same time, the number of people who chose to go to hospital decreased because of the perceived threat of Covid, and government messaging that told them to not 'overwhelm' the medical system. So it could be that the numbers were actually higher.

However a similar rise in the rate of children going through puberty early during Covid has been seen in countries including India and Turkey.

In total, researchers looked at 289 girls suspected to be going through puberty because they developed 'breast buds' — a very early sign of developing breasts — before the age of eight.

The number of these girls sent to a paediatric endocrine unit rose by almost 80 per cent during the pandemic compared to the previous four years.

The number diagnosed with rapidly progressive early puberty was 30 per cent higher, according to the study published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society.

Before the pandemic, just 41 per cent of girls referred to the clinic were found to have rapidly progressive early puberty, but that rose to 53.5 per cent during Covid.

During the pandemic, girls were also diagnosed at about four months younger, when they were seven years and eight months old, on average, rather than almost at the age of eight.

Puberty typically happens between ages eight and 14 for girls and ages 11 and 16 for boys. However, precocious puberty often starts at age eight or earlier for girls and age nine for boys.

In extreme cases, it can start as early as two years old.

Black and Hispanic children typically enter puberty six months earlier than white children.

This is the time in a child's life when they go through physical changes to reach sexual maturity and be able to reproduce.

The first sign of puberty for girls is usually breast development, followed by their first period and getting hair in places it wasn't before, like the armpits and pubic area. Acne and body odor can also happen.

Puberty begins when the hypothalamus begins producing a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH).

GnRH reaches the pituitary gland in the brain, which governs hormonal changes. GnRH stimulates the pituitary gland to release two hormones — luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).

LH and FSH travel to the sex organs, the ovaries and the testes, triggering them to release sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone).

Girls are more likely to experience precocious puberty than boys, and it can lead to several emotional problems. They may struggle to fit in with classmates who haven't gone through these changes yet.

Precocious puberty can lead to lasting physical and mental health consequences.

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that women who got their first period before age 12 faced a 23 per cent higher risk of developing heart disease later in life, and a 28 per cent higher risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke, compared with those who began menstruating later.

They also had a 25 per cent higher risk of dying from cancer, something that previous research suggests is likely attributable to higher overall exposure to estrogen during a woman's lifetime.

A study in the journal Development and Psychopathy found that this lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety and negative perceptions about body image.

Additional research suggests early puberty in girls can lead to substance abuse and eating disorders.