A substantial increase in the number of girls diagnosed with precocious puberty, a phenomenon where children’s bodies change into adult bodies too soon, has been observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. This startling trend has been researched and analyzed in a new Italian study published on August 3, 2021, in the Journal of the Endocrine Society.
Overview of Findings
The study examined the data and reasons for the increase in precocious puberty, focusing on the years before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following are the key findings and elements of the study:
1. Rise in Cases
- Before the Pandemic: 175 girls were diagnosed with central precocious puberty, and 72 with rapidly progressive central precocious puberty.
- During the Pandemic: 114 girls were diagnosed with central precocious puberty, and 61 with rapidly progressive central precocious puberty.
- Proportion Increase: A higher proportion (53.5% vs. 41.1%) of girls were diagnosed during COVID-19 compared to before the pandemic.
2. Contributing Factors
Researchers identified several contributing factors to the rise in precocious puberty including:
- Increased screen time, averaging 1.946 hours per day.
- Lack of physical activity; 88.5% of the girls stopped all physical exercise.
- Increased weight gain associated with advanced pubertal development.
- Pandemic-related lifestyle changes, such as poor eating and sleeping habits.
3. Other Potential Factors
Additionally, the researchers proposed other possible hypotheses, including:
- Stress and social isolation.
- Increased conflicts between parents.
- Economic status.
- Increased use of hand and surface sanitizers.
Details of the Study
The retrospective study was conducted by Dr. Mohamad Maghnie, professor of pediatrics at the University of Genoa, and colleagues, including experts from the Giannina Gaslini Institute in Italy. They collected comprehensive data from 289 girls under 8 years, referred for suspected precocious puberty from January 2016 to June 2021.
The girls were divided into two groups, pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, based on their diagnosis dates. Age at the onset of puberty, family history for precocious puberty, ethnicity, physical activity level, COVID-19 infection history, changes in eating habits, screen viewing time, and various clinical and radiological data were collected and analyzed.
Conclusions and Implications
The study confirms a significant increase in precocious puberty diagnoses during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the rapidly progressive form. The phenomenon is strongly associated with lifestyle changes induced by the pandemic, such as increased screen time, lack of physical activity, and potential weight gain.
The observations may have far-reaching implications for understanding how environmental and lifestyle factors interact with biological development. While the study’s authors acknowledge that biological adaptation cannot be entirely ruled out, the clear correlation with pandemic-induced behavioral changes warrants further investigation and potential intervention to ensure the well-being of children during these challenging times.
The study underscores the complex and often unexpected ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted different facets of life, bringing attention to an issue that may have lasting effects on a young generation’s health and development. The response to this challenge must be equally comprehensive, engaging various sectors of society in a concerted effort to safeguard the well-being and development of our youth. It also calls for more extensive research and possible policy adjustments to address these novel challenges.