Obese girls in the early stages of puberty are at risk for having high levels of androgens (sometimes called "male hormones"), a condition that may lead to health problems later, write a team of researchers from the University of Virginia Health System.
Dr. Christopher McCartney and colleagues, writing in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, found that free testosterone (T) was three times higher in obese girls than in normal-weight girls. These findings were especially prominent in the group of obese early pubertal (Tanner stage 1-3) girls, who had a mean free T that was 5 times as great as the group of normal-weight early pubertal girls. The obese group also demonstrated elevated fasting insulin compared with normal-weight girls, the researchers noted.
The study of 76 girls included 41 obese children, and an extension of this research involving 98 girls was presented at the ENDO 2006 meeting in Boston on Sunday, June 25.
"We're still not certain why overweight girls tend to have elevated testosterone," said Dr. McCartney, assistant professor of research in endocrinology and metabolism. "I suspect that the reasons for this association are very complex, but currently available data suggest that elevated insulin levels and abnormalities of LH secretion may play a role in many cases."
The obese girls with higher testosterone may be at risk for adult polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), says co-author Dr. John C. Marshall, professor of internal medicine and director for the UVa Center for Research in Reproduction (CRR), one of 14 such centers in the country. This CRR work is funded by an NIH (NICHD) Center Grant.
The UVa team is currently investigating how obesity and hyperandrogenemia (high levels of male hormones) might contribute to the development of adolescent and adult PCOS. PCOS is a syndrome characterized by irregular menstrual cycles and elevated androgen levels, which may lead to reduced fertility, acne, and facial hair growth. It is also associated with metabolic problems that affect several body systems.
Previous studies have demonstrated an association between childhood/adolescent obesity with abnormal glucose metabolism, hypertension, and abnormal lipid metabolism, McCartney says. Additionally, obesity during childhood and adolescence is strongly associated with obesity during adulthood, which also suggests a higher risk for adult diabetes. It remains unclear whether or not the presence of high testosterone (in obese girls) independently impacts this risk, he said.
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