Will my new baby inherit my bipolar condition?

Written by  in category 
June 3, 2017
DNA Generational Mental Illness

One more thing to worry about

As a mother of three and now grandmother of one, I worry what has passed on genetically to my offspring. We don’t have a family history of bipolar disease and as far as I know, no particular gene is identified for the condition in any case. However, I did grow up knowing that my maternal grandmother was clinically depressed. Losing a child to Leukemia took its toll on her. I was quite young and obviously have no memories of Grandma from that time. I do know she additionally suffered the loss of her father during her teen years along with living through wars the Great Depression. I have often wondered whether I received hereditary mental health predispositions.  How much of her bout(s) with depression were passed on to her children, grandchildren, great and now great, great grandchildren is unknown. I am unsettled by this lack of information.  What does all this mean for my family? What does your family history of mental illness look like?

There has been much research over the years on diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health conditions showing a genetic or hereditary factor to them.  Although much less studied and the results not as strident, the same is true of mental health issues. There is evidence linking certain mental health conditions. I think of it as predisposition and then you factor in all the things like environmental factors such as toxins in the water, food, air.

The research

Mood Disorders such as Anxiety and Depression are at the top of the list of genetically and familial inherited mental diseases. The following study about anxiety:  “… it turns out anxiety might be hereditary, according to a new study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Young monkeys had their brains scanned when something mildly stressful happened, and then the results were compared to those of their parents and relatives. Guess what? Three different parts of the more anxious baby monkeys’ brains lit up in the same pattern as their parents’. These anxious brain reactions appear to have been inherited …”  

There are more studies available with links about depression and its multi-generational connection.

According to a 2016 study: “A new study suggests that the risk of depression in offspring may be affected not only by a history of depression in the parents, but also the grandparents. Authors of the study conclude that while children of parents with a history of depression face an increased risk of developing depressive disorders, those with a family history of depression extending across two generations are at particularly high risk, and may benefit from early intervention. Past research has clearly documented the increased risk of depression and other psychiatric disorders among individuals whose parents have suffered from major depressive disorder. However, less is known about the impact of a history of depression in generations beyond the parents.” 

Especially prevalent and troublesome among those in poverty where the conditions are unlikely to change. It becomes a circular condition. There is also evidence showing the extra risks to younger women. “Younger women were more likely to have such problems, and were less likely to get help: among women ages 18-25 who experienced depression in 2014, nearly half received no treatment. The problem is so common, in fact, that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends depression screening for all adults and frequent re-screening for anyone who is high-risk. The problem is particularly common among those who are low-income.” 

The following sources show even more evidence of the genetics of depression running in families. “When a parent has depression, a child faces three times the risk of becoming depressed, compared to a child without a depressed parent, Weissman says. If the parent developed the mental illness before age 20, the child’s risk rises four- to fivefold.”  Doctors recognize that depression can weave a long thread of despair. “Depression is highly familial,” says Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University. She began studying depression in families in 1982 and has now tracked three generations of family members with the disorder.

The other mental disease with strong links genetically is bipolar disorder. “The problems in the USA are also multi-generational. Compared to those from Europe, relatives of patients with bipolar disorder in the USA have more psychiatric illness, including depression, bipolar disorder, suicide attempts, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and “other” illness. This higher incidence extends backward 2 generations to the patient’s parents and grandparent, sideways to their siblings and spouses, and forward 1 generation to their offspring. In our study without prospective evaluation or follow-up, 43.6% of the offspring from the USA had a major disorder, while only 16.1% in those from Europe. The degree of familial loading for illness was related to the increases in illness rates in the offspring.” 

Another study shows more evidence with regard to bipolar disease: “In a study of the offspring of parents with manic- depressive illness which used direct interviews with children, Decina and colleagues (1983) found an increased frequency of major and minor affective disorders in children of bipolar parents as compared with normal controls. Hammen, Burge, Burney, and Adrian (1990) reported on offspring from four groups of mothers, including unipolar, bipolar, medically ill, and normal mothers. This study found that the children in the two affective disorder parent groups had very high rates of diagnoses (82% unipolar, 72% bipolar). Offspring of the medical group had lower (43%) but nonetheless moderate rates compared with children in the normal group (22%). It is apparent from offspring research, both cross-sectional and longitudinal, that when a parent is ill, the children are likely to also manifest some psychiatric disorder. Thus mood disorders are not illnesses that affect just individuals; they are also familial illnesses that may have lifelong consequences across multiple generations.”

There is Hope

As I read the studies and thought about it with my genetics and my own mental health conditions, depression, anxiety, ADD,  at first I could not find a lot to be hopeful about. But then I realized there were things I could do to combat my hopelessness. The first thing is to talk about it, spread the word that it’s safe to talk to doctors about and friends who can help us. The stigma lessens more and more each time a brave patient says “I need help with my mental health and it’s okay for me to ask.”

What can we do with this information? Why is it helpful? How do families learn more information about the illness and how to handle the symptoms? How does a parent deal with their own illness and their child’s? Maybe even the illness of their own parent?

Having primary care doctors keep an eye on mental health at annual physicals is a great idea. I realize I have no control over the genes I passed on to my children and their children. I also have to hope I provided an environment in their childhood, giving them the tools they need to combat any mental health issues they may encounter. I can help them by sharing my experiences and the tools I have learned to help me with my conditions.

Amy Krolak

Amy Krolak

I am a 50+ grandmother, mother, wife, sister, daughter. I have worn many hats in my life: student, library aide, bookseller, special education para, computer room monitor, substitute teacher. I am focusing on writing, taking creative writing courses, writing articles and short stories.

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