Boys are now maturing physically at increasingly younger ages — the age of sexual maturity has decreased by about 2.5 months each decade since the middle of the 1700′s. Joshua Goldstein, director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock (MPIDR), came to this conclusion by examining mortality data that has revealed that the time period when boys are sexually mature but not yet considered adults socially has been growing over the years.
In the case of boys, nutrition and better resilience to disease are thought to play a role so that, as Goldstein puts it, “being 18 today is like being 22 in 1800.” According to Science Daily, Goldstein analyzed mortality data:
When male hormone production during puberty reaches a maximum level the probability of dying jumps up. This phenomenon, called the “accident hump,” exists in almost all societies and is statistically well documented.
The “accident hump” occurs because, as testosterone release reaches its maximum, young men — or as we might say, adolescents and teenagers — participate in especially risky behavior, namely, “dangerous and reckless shows of strength, negligence, and a high propensity to violence,” which lead to an increase in the number of “fatal accidents.” The probability for such fatal events remains low, but the rate at which such occur does increases dramatically (see the graph at Science Daily).
In analyzing demographic data, Goldstein found that
… the maximum mortality value of the accident hump shifted to earlier age by 2.5 months for each decade since the mid-1700s, or just over two years per century. Accordingly, the age of boys’ sexual maturity decreased at the same rate. Essentially, the data showed that the age of sexual maturity is getting younger and younger since the accident hump is occurring earlier and earlier. (Research included data for Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Great Britain and Italy. Since 1950 the data is no longer clear but indicates stagnation.) The maximum of the accident hump occurs in the late phase of puberty, after males reach reproductive capability and their voice changes.
Goldstein also says that the lowering of the age of maturity for boys is “biological” because the decline in the accident hump “began long before the intervention of the automobile (accompanied by a high risk of accident),” as well as of other “technological advancements [such as guns] or social activities.”
Even though boys are now becoming physically adults at an earlier age, socially and economically they are reaching adulthood later:
Life cycle research shows that for more than half a century the age at which people marry, have children, start their careers and become financially independent from their parents continues to rise.
…”Important decisions in life are being made with an increasing distance from the recklessness of youth.” The demographer points out that it remains unclear whether the “high-risk phase” of adolescence becomes more dangerous for males because it starts earlier. While younger men are less mentally and socially mature, parents also tend to supervise their children more closely when they are younger.
My son Charlie was 11 when he started to undergo the hormonal changes of puberty. These seemed to happen overnight and to be accompanied by a huge upsurge in what we tactfully refer to as “challenging behaviors” including an increase in aggressive actions, compounded by the fact that Charlie grew like the proverbial beanstalk, gaining about 6 inches in a few months. He’s moderately to severely autistic so it was even more difficult than normal to explain to him what was happening (to be honest, it was quite impossible). Charlie having little language, limited interests and no circle of peers, he has had few outlets to express his feelings about the physical and emotional turmoil that accompanies adolescence. Daily and intense physical activity has helped a lot and now, with Charlie 14 years old, he is learning to ask to ride his bike or run when he feels a surge of energy or hormones.
I hadn’t thought there were too many benefits to the early onset of puberty, but appreciate the point that, by Charlie physically maturing at a younger age, we, his parents, have been able to supervise things more and also to work on teaching him strategies to deal with the changes in his body.
Examination of the medical records of girls has revealed a similar trend. Studies have linked early menarche (onset of menstruation) to depression in girls as well as to obesity and heart risk. With more evidence now of the earlier onset of puberty in boys, more studies and knowledge will hopefully emerge to help our children navigate a very confusing and complicated period of life.
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