Mental Health and the Beginning of Life

The bigger the better. While we don’t usually apply this to babies, it appears that bigger is in fact better when it comes to birthweight and mental health. A recent study found that low birthweight carries significant risk for depression and anxiety later in life.

“The lower the birthweight, the more likely that an individual will suffer from mood disorders over the course of their life,” says AHFMR Population Health Investigator Dr. Ian Colman, who led the study as part of his Ph.D. research at the University of Cambridge. He is now a faculty member of the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. “The results give us a clue to one of the causes of depression. There is something different about people who are depressed, and for some people this difference can be traced back to the beginning of life.”

The study used data from one of the longest-running cohort studies in the world. The Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development has tracked the health and well-being of more than 5,300 people since they were born in Great Britain in 1946.

Being born small isn’t necessarily a problem, notes Dr. Colman. But low birthweight can indicate adverse conditions in the womb. When a mother is stressed, blood flow to the uterus is restricted and the fetus gets fewer nutrients for growth. At the same time, stress hormones pass through the placenta to the fetus, where they can affect brain development and the baby’s stress response.

Significantly, the researchers also uncovered another factor in a connection between early development and mental health: the age at which children reach developmental milestones. The people with the poorest mental health were, on average, the last children to stand and the last to walk. The people with the best mental health were the first to stand and the first to walk. “This tells us that many people with depression not only have something different about them early in life, it also says those differences have to do with the development of the brain,” says Dr. Colman.

“From a public-health point of view, this is very important because it demonstrates that how we treat pregnant mothers really does matter.”

Dr. Colman is now extending his work to better understand the links between prenatal stress in the mother and mental illness later in the child’s life. Using data from British and Canadian cohorts, he is looking at whether those who are smaller at birth and slower to reach developmental milestones are more likely to become depressed in the face of stressful events such as divorce, job loss, and death in the family.

“There is considerable evidence from animal-based research that [maternal] prenatal stress affects the stress response of offspring. Obviously we can’t take pregnant women and put them in stressful situations just to see what happens. My work is a window on what actually happens in human populations in these conditions.

“One of the main things I’m building toward is a theoretical model of the causes of depression through the life course. Many factors influence the causes, progression, and long-term prognosis for depression. I want to tease some of these out.”

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