/publications/issue/2010/August2010/WomensHealthWatch-0810

Women’s Health Watch

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Puberty Beginning Earlier for Girls
Earlier onset of puberty in girls has been a growing concern among health researchers in recent years, and a new study confirms the trend is continuing. The study, which will be published in the September issue of Pediatrics, reported that more girls are beginning breast development by age 7 than in previous decades.

Lead researcher Frank M. Biro, MD, director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, recruited 1239 girls, aged 6 to 8, from 3 different cities. Onset of puberty in each girl was determined by breast development, which was measured by a trained examiner.

By age 7, 10.4% of white girls had begun puberty, compared with 23.4% of African American girls and 14.9% of Hispanic girls, the researchers found. They compared these results with a 1997 study, which showed that only 5% of white girls and 15.4% of African American girls showed breast development at age 7. Dr. Biro attributes the results to a combination of factors, including ethnicity and high body mass index (BMI). He believes environmental exposure to endocrinedisrupting chemicals might also explain the recent decline in puberty age; more research is needed.

In the meantime, Dr. Biro advised, parents should try to minimize children’s exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and engage in physical activity with children to help them maintain a healthy BMI.


Higher BMI Linked to Memory Problems in Women
Middle-aged women who carry extra weight—especially around their hips—are at greater risk of memory decline, according to a study published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Led by Diana Kerwin, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, researchers examined data from 8745 women, aged 65 to 79 years, who were enrolled in the government-sponsored Women’s Health Initiative. Participants were given a series of tests and questionnaires to assess cognitive function, health and lifestyle, height, weight, body circumference, and blood pressure.

Point for point, women with higher body mass indexes (BMIs) scored lower on the standard memory test, indicating an inverse relationship between BMI and cognitive function. The effect was intensified in women with smaller waist-to-hip measurements. In those with the highest waist-to-hip ratios, the effect was reversed: as a woman’s BMI rose, so did her cognitive score. This unusual finding may be linked to the type of hormones released by hip fat, but more research is needed to identify the underlying mechanisms, Dr. Kerwin concluded.

Whatever the cause, the results provide significant motivation for middle-aged and younger women to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which benefits both body and mind, she said.


Health Care Reform: Focus on Women
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) has long championed President Obama’s health care overhaul, citing among its accomplishments the fact that “being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition.” A new report, published by the Commonwealth Fund, echoes that mantra, offering a year-by-year analysis of how the bill is expected to benefit women over the next decade.

Women rely more heavily on health care, face greater difficulty acquiring insurance coverage, and are more likely to struggle to pay medical bills, according to the report. Major components of the Affordable Care Act aim to alleviate these pressures by expanding eligibility requirements for Medicaid and opening state-run insurance “exchanges.”

The changes will provide federal subsidies to 15 million of the 17 million uninsured women in the United States, the report predicted. Other regulations will prohibit insurers from refusing coverage or charging higher premiums based on gender, and still others will require insurance plans to help cover the costs of pregnancy.

Although these measures are not scheduled to go into effect until 2014, several key changes will be implemented as early as September. As the primary coordinators of care for their families, women will especially benefit from a provision allowing adult children up to age 26 to receive coverage through their parents’ insurance plan. The closure of the Medicare drug coverage gap, beginning with $250 rebates issued earlier this summer, will also benefit women, who are more likely to reach the gap, according to the report.

Following the bill’s complete implementation, women “will ultimately find themselves on a level playing field with men, with a full range of comprehensive benefits, including maternity coverage,” the authors argued. The full report is available at www.commonwealthfund.org.