Growing Up Too Soon

Teen boys -- like their sisters -- are growing up much earlier than their ancestors

Apologies to my readers – I cannot believe August has swum by with only a few posts here. I could blame it on my getting my youngest ready for university, and that was true. There were loads of list cross-outs and discussions of what/where/how, and multiple trips to Bed Bath & Beyond. Logistics and acquisition of materièl take time. But really, regarding the past few weeks with hindsight’s 20/20, I think what was happening was mourning in advance. As a new empty-nester, I believe grief grabbed the scruff of my neck and wouldn’t let go, even if the cause of grief – the college transition – hadn’t yet happened.

It has. We’ve talked, Skyped, e-mailed. We’ll both be fine, eventually. So, onward.

It’s been many years since pediatricians began reporting that menarche (the start of menstrual periods) was occurring in increasingly younger patients, in girls as young as 10. The search for a reason led to improved nutrition and more time in the sun. The lack of sunlight in 19th century girls’ lives has been blamed for later maturation as well as rickets, the deficiency disease caused by a lack of Vitamin D – girls were routinely kept inside to work at textile manufacture, cooking, and the care of younger children.

Growth hormones given to meat animals such as cows and pigs may also influence girls’ early development, it’s been thought.

Until recently, however, research focused solely on female children – since menarche is a startling and definitive sign of change. Could it be, however, that boys’ bodies are maturing earlier, as well?

As it turns out, they are, and that spells potential bad news for them, their neighbors and the rest of us. And it may have nothing to do with growth hormones in their Big Macs.

A recent article in the journal PLoS ONE (reported in a UK newspaper) described studies carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. Because there is no “bright line” definition for male maturity analogous to menarche, researchers struggled to find out whether the same early maturation documented for girls was also true for their brothers. They found proof that it was in the “accident hump”. This hump is a surge in deaths that occurs when boys reach sexual maturity. With the concurrent rise in testosterone, boys take extra chances, and some of those risks result in their own deaths. The death records of several countries in Europe showed that the average age at which deaths spiked – the accident hump – has fallen steadily since the 18th century, in a consistent decline of approximately 2.5 months of age per 10 years of history.

Although there must be a bottoming effect, the research shows what has been demonstrated through anecdotal evidence. We’ve known for years that “great girls” – that is, girls who were 17 or 18 years old but had not yet reached physical maturity – were not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, of course, the parents would bring them to a physician before that age. What about boys?

One type of evidence linked to maturity in boys has been well-documented: the age at which their voices break and reach deeper registers. Choir directors have long recorded the change, since a boys’ choir would lose sopranos and altos each year. In the mid-18th century, in a choir led by Johann Sebastian Bach, the average age to lose a chorister because of a voice break was 18. By now, the average age is 14.

Earlier maturation puts boys at risk of testosterone-fueled recklessness and chance-taking – which can affect their fellow students, parents and neighbors, as well – at a time when their mental and emotional maturity lags far behind. The prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of the brain, does not fully mature until age 25. If a boy reaches sexual maturity at age 14, he is far less able to cope with urges toward violence, sex and risk-taking than his 18th-century ancestor. Even though contemporary 14-year-olds take longer to achieve the social markers of maturity (completing schooling, beginning careers, marrying, becoming fathers), their bodies and brains are flooded with more testosterone than their 18th-century counterparts, with far fewer ways in which to channel their energy and aggression. Gone are many family farms and ranches, which absorbed hours of work. Gone, too, apprentice programs in army, navy and the trades, where boys learned while working hard under the supervision of men. Few boys even walk to school these days, and school athletics are more rigidly structured, allowing only the most-skilled to participate in many schools.

Meanwhile, their prefrontal cortexes cannot keep up with their physical growth.

The causes? Probably the same ones affecting their sisters: better nutrition and medicine, more sunlight, and improved living standards.

No one wants to return to a time of famine and rickets. Yet boys who in no way are accountable for their own early development must be guided toward responsible behavior, for their own health and safety, and for that of the people around them.

This will be of increasing importance in both China and India, where — due to sex-specific abortion of female fetuses — boys already outnumber girls in some regions. The trend toward boys has not abated. In fact, it’s increased, and has spread outside these two nations (influencing Southeast Asian nations and former Soviet Socialist Republics). With such an excess of males, and the knowledge that physical/sexual maturity precedes mental/emotional maturity by up to 12 years, these countries need to put in place now policies to preserve them from what will be a source of widespread and lasting societal rebellion and risk-taking.

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Filed under China, Family, Health, India, Nature, Science, Teenage boys

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