Early physical maturity can be dangerous for boys

August 25, 2011

Research has found that the ?accident hump? for boys is trending downward into younger years. With physical maturity occurring earlier than ever, pediatricians should warn parents that their sons? deeper voices may mean more, not less, supervision.

Boys are physically maturing earlier than ever, and pediatricians should warn parents that deeper voices may mean that boys need more, not less, supervision in some ways, according to a European study.

Research at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, noted that the age of sexual maturity has been decreasing by about 2.5 months each decade at least since the middle of the 18th century. But Joshua Goldstein, the institute’s director, said that even though it is widely accepted that girls are maturing earlier and earlier, only recently have researchers been able to actually document that trend for boys.

"The reason for earlier maturity for boys, as with girls, is probably because nutrition and disease environments are getting more favorable for it," Goldstein said. "Researchers see for the first time how females and males have been equally responsive to changes in the environment."

Goldstein cautioned that the increase in the time period during which young people are sexually mature but not yet adults in social terms can have serious repercussions for their health and safety. The risk of accidents and death increases along with testosterone levels, he said.

When male hormone production during puberty reaches a maximum level, the probability of dying also increases in a phenomenon known as the accident hump, Goldstein explained. The maximum of the accident hump has traditionally occurred in the late phase of puberty, after boys reach reproductive capability and their voices change, he said.

The problem is that with testosterone surging, young men engage in risky behaviors such as dangerous and reckless shows of strength, negligence, and a high propensity to violence, all of which could lead to fatal incidents. This high-risk phase of adolescence can be made less dangerous in younger men with heightened parental supervision, Goldstein suggested.

In physical terms, "being 18 today is like being 22 in 1800,” Goldstein said.

Go back to the current issue of the eConsult.