The age of puberty onset appears to be based on the gap between the parents’ and child’s ultimate height, not genetics, according to a new study by researchers at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev (BGU) in Israel.
The onset of puberty is marked by rapid biological, cognitive and emotional changes. While some kids seem to start much earlier than others, researchers have been unable to find a specific link between genes and the timing of this major life transition.
In their new paper, published in the PLOS ONE journal, the researchers discuss the significance of this “height gap” and their new prediction model for determining onset of puberty.
“We found that the age a child reaches puberty is based on how the body responds to the child’s individual growth needs,” said Dr. Yehuda Limony of the BGU Faculty of Health Sciences.
“When a ‘tall’ child seems to be exceeding a parent’s height, he may begin puberty earlier than his fellow peers to slow his growth and ensure that his final adult height is in the ‘target’ range. The opposite is also true: ‘short’ children don’t reach puberty until later than the societal average because their bodies are giving them extra time to grow in order to reach a parent’s height.”
The researchers said that while there is a wide variation for what is considered a “normal” age for puberty to begin, scientists have not been able to validate the common assumption that genetics plays a primary role in determining when a person will start puberty.
The study focused on groups of Israeli and Polish children. The Israeli group of 110 boys and 60 girls had been referred to an endocrinology clinic in southern Israel between 2004 and 2015 because of a “normal” but below average or short stature, or early or late puberty.
The Polish group of 162 girls and 173 boys attended Warsaw elementary schools. Researchers followed the boys from ages 8 to 18, and the girls until age 17.
“A child who hits puberty earlier than his peers, but at a time consistent with a parental height gap model, should be considered ‘healthy,'” said Limony.
“We believe having the ability to determine normal ranges more accurately will reduce the need for unnecessary diagnostic procedures and help doctors better explain the emergence of early- or late-onset puberty to concerned parents.”
Limony conducted the study with Dr. Michael Friger of the BGU Faculty of Health Sciences and Slawomir Koziel at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.