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Girls with Low Birth Weight at Elevated Risk of Depression
Major depression, also called depression, clinical depression, or major depressive disorder, is a serious mental illness that has multiple health consequences, both emotional and physical. Women are diagnosed with this disorder twice as often as men. Whether this is because it occurs in women more often or they are simply more likely to seek help, is not fully understood. Regardless, what is known is that women suffer from this serious, but treatable disease. And now, researchers have found that girls born with a low birth weight are at a greater risk of developing it later on in life.
Depression is not often understood by those who have no experience with this mental illness. It is much more than a simple or short-term case of the blues or feeling a little bad. It is not something that can be shaken off in a few hours or a day. Depression is a chronic illness that comes back again and again, changing in severity and requiring treatment over the course of a lifetime.
The symptoms of depression vary by individual, and can range in intensity from mild to severe. Most cases of depression include intense periods of sadness, unhappiness, lethargy, frustration, inactivity, and a loss of interest in normal activities. Someone with depression may also experience changes in eating and sleeping habits, which may include either an increase or decrease in either one. Suicidal thoughts are another sign of depression, as are physical symptoms, such as pains, that cannot be explained by a physical condition.
The exact causes of depression are not fully understood, but different factors such as hormones, genetic traits, early childhood trauma, and other life events seem to play a role. There are also certain risk factors that can make a person more likely to experience major depression, whether the reason for the connection is understood or not. These include being a woman, having relatives with depression, experiencing trauma, having a minimal social circle, drug and alcohol abuse, having a serious physical illness like cancer, or taking certain medications.
New risk factors are being discovered through research and one of these is low birth weight. A study conducted by researchers at Duke University on the topic was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The researchers looked at a group of nearly 1,500 children between the ages of 9 and 16 that included those born with a normal weight and those born with a low birth weight. Among the girls with a low birth weight, 38 percent experienced depression as teenagers. Only eight percent of those with normal birth weight had any episodes of depression later in life.
Girls with low birth weight and other risk factors, such as teenage pregnancy, abuse, or other trauma, had episodes of depression at a rate of nearly 70 percent. Among girls with normal birth weight, but other risk factors, only 20 percent experienced depression as teens. Even when the other risk factors were controlled for, the correlation between low birth weight and depression in teenage girls is very strong. There was no correlation between low birth weight and depression in boys.
The researchers suggest a possible explanation for the correlation in girls. They believe that there may be adaptations in the mother’s womb that help the fetus survive under adverse conditions, but that also lead to low birth weight. These adaptations may help them survive in the womb, but may also lead to a decreased ability to cope with stress later in life. The inability to cope may be dormant until a stressful or traumatic incident occurs that triggers depression.
While boys did not have the same connection between low birth weight and depression, previous studies have shown other correlations. Boys with low birth weight seem to be more at risk for early-onset mental illnesses and disorders like autism or ADHD. Girls are more prone to the late-onset depression. Why there is a difference between girls and boys is not yet known.
In addition to depression, girls with low birth weight are also more likely to have generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social phobias. These findings as well as the connection to depression give doctors and parents important information. They need to pay close attention to the development of girls who were born with low birth weights and treat signs of mental illness early to give them the best possible start in life.