Anxiety and Depression Starts Before Birth in the Womb
Were you a big bouncing baby from the time you were born or were you a scrawny little thing? Were you up and toddling at a tender age, or were you maybe just a little slow at finding your feet? These differences could predict your risk of anxiety and depression in later life according to the latest findings from researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
The Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development has been tracking over 5000 individuals since they were born in 1946. Psychiatric assessments taken at five different points in their lives have provided evidence of six distinct life-course trajectories:
- 45% symptom free.
- 33% persistent minor symptoms.
- 11% some symptoms in adolescence and minor in adulthood.
- 6% symptoms in adolescence but well in adulthood.
- 3% few symptoms in adolescence but severe in adulthood.
- 2% persistent severe symptoms throughout their lives
Assessments relating to anxiety were taken at ages 13, 15, 36, 43 and 53 years. Emotional and behavioral symptoms at age 13 and 15 were reported by class teachers who rated against factors such as, ‘timid child’, ‘frightened of rough games’, ‘always tired and washed out’, ‘usually gloomy and sad’, ‘avoids attention’, ‘frequently day dreams in class’. As participants matured, they participated in clinically validated interviews and completed a series of self-report questionnaires relating to their physical and mental health.
Dr Ian Colman and his team checked these results against each persons’ birth weight and the age at which they first walked. They found the heavier the person at birth and the earlier they walked the less likely they were to show psychiatric symptoms later in life. Low birth weight and slower developmental milestones are indicative of poor conditions in the womb.
“…one proposed explanation for the link between prenatal stress, low birth weight, and later stress response is that external factors causes a maternal stress response, which reduces uterine blood flow [which results] in a stressful environment for the fetus”. (p.1270)
But does this mean our mental health is determined for us? The answer has to be no. There is no strict division between what we are born with and what we acquire during our lives. Dr Colman states, “there is an abundance of research that shows that numerous other factors, including stressful life events, genetics and physical health are also important causes”.
Colman, I., Ploubidis, G.B., Wadsworth, M.E.J., Jones, P.B., Croudace, T. J. (2007) A Longitudinal Typology of Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety over the Life Course. Journal of Biological Psychiatry 62: 1265-71.