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Puberty, Obesity, Environment and Breast Cancer

By Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Science Cafe | March 19, 2007

A woman's likelihood of getting breast cancer peaks in her 70s, but some researchers are focusing on puberty to better understand risks. That's because girlhood appears be a window of vulnerability to environmental insults that may result in breast cancer decades later.

"Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, and it may have origins early in life," says Robert Hiatt, MD, PhD, deputy director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF. "There may be things that happen during puberty that set the stage for breast cancer later on."

Puberty itself looks to be a moving target. A study this month in the journal Pediatrics concluded that girls who are overweight -- as early as age 3 -- reach puberty earlier on average than normal-weight girls.

That's one disturbing trend -- childhood obesity -- foreshadowing another. In fact, some public health experts are convinced that the average age of puberty, compared with a few decades ago, already has gotten younger by several months.

Although this latest news on puberty arrived as a sudden media flash, research on factors influencing puberty gradually has been gaining momentum in recent years.

(Note that in November 2007 the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center was renamed the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.)

Read more at Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Science Cafe