Puberty


Image Caption : Prepubescent Female Breast Cross Section : Medical visualization reconstructed from human data of a cross-section of a prepubescent female breast. Breast development begins during fetal development when the beginnings of the milk-duct system are formed and continues as a girl begins puberty when the breasts enlarge and become padded with fat the secretory glands are formed and the duct system matures. Further changes to the breasts occur during pregnancy and menopause. Human females are the only mammals who develop full breasts irregardless of the need for milk production.

Puberty

Puberty is the time in life when a boy or girl becomes sexually mature. It is a process that usually happens between ages 10 and 14 for girls and ages 12 and 16 for boys. It causes physical changes, and affects boys and girls differently.

In girls:

  • The first sign of puberty is usually breast development.
  • Then hair grows in the pubic area and armpits.
  • Menstruation (or a period) usually happens last.

In boys:

  • Puberty usually begins with the testicles and penis getting bigger.
  • Then hair grows in the pubic area and armpits.
  • Muscles grow, the voice deepens, and facial hair develops as puberty continues.

Both boys and girls may get acne. They also usually have a growth spurt (a rapid increase in height) that lasts for about 2 or 3 years. This brings them closer to their adult height, which they reach after puberty.

NIH: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Further Sexual Development Occurs at Puberty

Puberty is the stage of development at which individuals become sexually mature. Though the outcomes of puberty for boys and girls are very different, the hormonal control of the process is very similar. In addition, though the timing of these events varies between individuals, the sequence of changes that occur is predictable for male and female adolescents. As shown in Figure, a concerted release of hormones from the hypothalamus (GnRH), the anterior pituitary (LH and FSH), and the gonads (either testosterone or estrogen) is responsible for the maturation of the reproductive systems and the development of secondary sex characteristics, which are physical changes that serve auxiliary roles in reproduction.

The first changes begin around the age of eight or nine when the production of LH becomes detectable. The release of LH occurs primarily at night during sleep and precedes the physical changes of puberty by several years. In pre-pubertal children, the sensitivity of the negative feedback system in the hypothalamus and pituitary is very high. This means that very low concentrations of androgens or estrogens will negatively feed back onto the hypothalamus and pituitary, keeping the production of GnRH, LH, and FSH low.

As an individual approaches puberty, two changes in sensitivity occur. The first is a decrease of sensitivity in the hypothalamus and pituitary to negative feedback, meaning that it takes increasingly larger concentrations of sex steroid hormones to stop the production of LH and FSH. The second change in sensitivity is an increase in sensitivity of the gonads to the FSH and LH signals, meaning the gonads of adults are more responsive to gonadotropins than are the gonads of children. As a result of these two changes, the levels of LH and FSH slowly increase and lead to the enlargement and maturation of the gonads, which in turn leads to secretion of higher levels of sex hormones and the initiation of spermatogenesis and folliculogenesis.

In addition to age, multiple factors can affect the age of onset of puberty, including genetics, environment, and psychological stress. One of the more important influences may be nutrition; historical data demonstrate the effect of better and more consistent nutrition on the age of menarche in girls in the United States, which decreased from an average age of approximately 17 years of age in 1860 to the current age of approximately 12.75 years in 1960, as it remains today. Some studies indicate a link between puberty onset and the amount of stored fat in an individual. This effect is more pronounced in girls, but has been documented in both sexes. Body fat, corresponding with secretion of the hormone leptin by adipose cells, appears to have a strong role in determining menarche. This may reflect to some extent the high metabolic costs of gestation and lactation. In girls who are lean and highly active, such as gymnasts, there is often a delay in the onset of puberty.

Hormones of Puberty

This flow chart shows the different hormones and the organs they act on at the onset of puberty. The hypothalamus is shown on top. The right half of the flowchart shows the hormones in females and the left half shows the hormones in males.

During puberty, the release of LH and FSH from the anterior pituitary stimulates the gonads to produce sex hormones in both male and female adolescents.

Signs of Puberty

Different sex steroid hormone concentrations between the sexes also contribute to the development and function of secondary sexual characteristics. Examples of secondary sexual characteristics are listed in
Table.

Development of the Secondary Sexual Characteristics
MaleFemale
Increased larynx size and deepening of the voice Deposition of fat, predominantly in breasts and hips
Increased muscular development Breast development
Growth of facial, axillary, and pubic hair, and increased growth of body hair Broadening of the pelvis and growth of axillary and pubic hair

As a girl reaches puberty, typically the first change that is visible is the development of the breast tissue. This is followed by the growth of axillary and pubic hair. A growth spurt normally starts at approximately age 9 to 11, and may last two years or more. During this time, a girl's height can increase 3 inches a year. The next step in puberty is menarche, the start of menstruation.

In boys, the growth of the testes is typically the first physical sign of the beginning of puberty, which is followed by growth and pigmentation of the scrotum and growth of the penis. The next step is the growth of hair, including armpit, pubic, chest, and facial hair. Testosterone stimulates the growth of the larynx and thickening and lengthening of the vocal folds, which causes the voice to drop in pitch. The first fertile ejaculations typically appear at approximately 15 years of age, but this age can vary widely across individual boys. Unlike the early growth spurt observed in females, the male growth spurt occurs toward the end of puberty, at approximately age 11 to 13, and a boy's height can increase as much as 4 inches a year. In some males, pubertal development can continue through the early 20s.

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Puberty is the process of physical changes through which a child's body matures into an adult body capable of sexual reproduction. It is initiated by hormonal signals from the brain to the gonads: the ovaries in a girl, the testes in a boy. In response to the signals, the gonads produce hormones that stimulate libido and the growth, function, and transformation of the brain, bones, muscle, blood, skin, hair, breasts, and sex organs. Physical growth—height and weight—accelerates in the first half of puberty and is completed when an adult body has been developed. Until the maturation of their reproductive capabilities, the pre-pubertal physical differences between boys and girls are the external sex organs.

On average, girls begin puberty around ages 10–11; boys around ages 11–12. Girls usually complete puberty around ages 15–17, while boys usually complete puberty around ages 16–17. The major landmark of puberty for females is menarche, the onset of menstruation, which occurs on average between ages 12–13; for males, it is the first ejaculation, which occurs on average at age 13. In the 21st century, the average age at which children, especially girls, reach puberty is lower compared to the 19th century, when it was 15 for girls and 16 for boys. This can be due to any number of factors, including improved nutrition resulting in rapid body growth, increased weight and fat deposition, or exposure to endocrine disruptors such as xenoestrogens, which can at times be due to food consumption or other environmental factors. Puberty which starts earlier than usual is known as precocious puberty. Puberty which starts later than usual is known as delayed puberty.

Notable among the morphologic changes in size, shape, composition, and functioning of the pubertal body, is the development of secondary sex characteristics, the "filling in" of the child's body; from girl to woman, from boy to man. Derived from the Latin puberatum (age of maturity), the word puberty describes the physical changes to sexual maturation, not the psychosocial and cultural maturation denoted by the term adolescent development in Western culture, wherein adolescence is the period of mental transition from childhood to adulthood, which overlaps much of the body's period of puberty.


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The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.