updated 8/11/2005 2:36:59 PM ET 2005-08-11T18:36:59

Overweight girls reach puberty earlier, but early puberty alone doesn’t necessarily lead to being overweight in adulthood, according to a new study.

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Instead, it’s childhood pudginess that’s linked with both early menstruation and adult weight problems.

Girls who were overweight before their first menstrual periods were almost eight times more likely to be overweight as women, the study found. But there was no link between precocious puberty alone and being overweight later in life.

“Given the epidemic of obesity in the population, it’s important to know where best to intervene,” said lead researcher Aviva Must, associate professor of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

That intervention should start in childhood, she said.

Childhood obesity the real problem
For parents, she said, the study provides reassurance that early puberty is normal for some overweight girls, and there is no greater risk of being overweight as an adult for a slender girl who gets her first period early.

Findings by other researchers that early puberty in girls causes adult weight problems sparked her research, Must said. That supposed link threatened to rob attention from the real culprit: childhood obesity.

The study will stop doctors from trying to prevent obesity by suppressing early puberty with medications, said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

“I think this is an important finding,” Katz said. “In many ways, it corroborates common sense: Kids who struggle with their weight become adults who struggle with their weight.”

The study will be published in the September issue of Pediatrics. It was released Thursday at the American Medical Association’s and the National PTA’s back-to-school briefing for reporters.

The study defined early puberty as a first period before age 12. During the past 25 years, the average age for a girl’s first period hasn’t changed much, but it has creeped earlier by about 2.5 months, Must said.

The data were from 307 women who had participated 40 years ago in a prior study of their growth and maturation.

As girls, only 4 percent were overweight before their first period. In adulthood, 37 percent of the women were overweight or obese.

Because the prior study looked at public school girls in Newton, Mass., participants were mostly white and middle class, limiting the current findings.

“We need to look at the same thing in African American and Hispanic populations,” said Alison Field, assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston, who does similar research but was not involved in the current study.

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