A new study has concluded that the age of sexual maturity in boys has been steadily decreasing in Europe since the mid-18th century. A similar trend among girls had previously been determined on the basis of medical records related to the onset of menstruation, but it has been harder to establish equivalent statistics for boys from historical documentation alone.
However, Joshua Goldstein of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany believes that sexual maturity can be correlated with what is known as the “accident hump.”
As explained by ScienceDaily, “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. Goldstein discovered 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.”
The story further explains that “the accident hump, which also exists among male apes, occurs because young men participate in particularly risky behaviour when the release of the hormone testosterone reaches its maximum. Dangerous and reckless shows of strength, negligence, and a high propensity to violence lead to an increased number of fatal accidents.”
The decline does not appear to be related to recent technological changes — such as the invention of the automobile or the greater availability of guns — so Goldstein concludes that it is probably the result of better health and nutrition. It may, however, have ceased about 1950.
Goldstein sees this change in largely positive terms. He points out that “important decisions in life are being made with an increasing distance from the recklessness of youth,” and suggests that the “high-risk phase” of adolescence may be less dangerous if it occurs while youths are still subject to parental supervision.
The shift would seem to have serious implications for social policy, however, with adolescence — the period during which sexual maturity is coupled with continuing social and financial constraints — becoming an increasingly distinctive and prolonged stage of human development.
Image from Alexis Simon Belle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons