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Columbia study shows depression intensifies from one generation to the next


20-year study at Columbia University Medical Center is first to highlight increased risk of depression across three generations

Nearly 60 percent of children whose parents and grandparents suffered from depression have a psychiatric disorder before they reach their early teens, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI). This is more than double the number of children (approx. 28 percent) who develop such disorders with no family history of depression.

The study, published in the January issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, is the first to follow three generations of high-risk families and has taken more than two decades to complete. The CUMC/NYSPI research team began studying 47 first generation family members in 1982; then interviewed 86 of their children several times as they grew into adulthood. The team has collected data from 161 members of the third generation, whose average age is 12.

Results found that most of the prepubescent grandchildren with a two-generation history of depression developed anxiety disorders that developed into depression as they aged into adolescence. This trend was also found when the researchers previously followed the children’s parents through adolescence and adulthood.

"We have shown that the risk of depression is carried through several generations and that it intensifies as more generations are affected," said the study’s lead author, Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., Professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center and Chief of the Department of Clinical & Genetic Epidemiology at New York State Psychiatric Institute. "Children with a two-generation family history of depression develop anxiety disorders earlier than other children and tend to experience more impairment." Other investigators involved included Priya Wickramaratne, Ph.D. and Virginia Warner, MPH.

Previous studies have shown that the children of a depressed parent are at greater risk of mood and anxiety disorders, but the Columbia study is the first to illustrate how the risk intensifies across three generations.

"Children of parents and grandparents with depression are at extremely high risk for mood and anxiety disorders even when they’re very young," Dr. Weissman says. "They should be considered for treatment if they develop anxiety disorders, or at least monitored very closely."

Craig LeMoult | EurekAlert!
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