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Risk of mental illness higher for premature babies
June 2nd, 2012
12:17 AM ET

Risk of mental illness higher for premature babies

Babies born prematurely are at significantly increased risk of developing mental health disorders such as psychosis, depression, and bipolar disorder as adults, according to a new study.

Compared to babies born at full term, which is 37 to 42 weeks of gestation, babies who were born at less than 32 weeks were 7 times more likely to be hospitalized with bipolar disorder as adults.  They were three times more likely to be hospitalized for depression and more than twice as likely for psychosis according to the study.

People born between 32 and 36 weeks also suffered from mental health conditions as adults, but with less severity than those born more prematurely.  The research was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Scientists analyzed data from the medical records of more than 1.3 million people born in Sweden, focusing on people older than age 16 who were admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric disorder. The researchers then looked to see who had been born prematurely.

Experts aren't exactly sure why people who were born prematurely had more mental health issues than people who were carried to term as babies.. They suspect it's due in part to a kind of brain injury resulting from an immature nervous system. The brain wiring or connections may not be as robust or well developed as in full term babies. The premature infants also are bombarded with environmental stressors they would not experience if still in the womb and this could inhibit normal development, scientists suggest.

And these new babies are in incubators instead of their parent's arms where bonding occurs, says Dr. Michael Katz, Interim Medical Director for the March of Dimes and a retired pediatrician.

"The external circumstances may be stressful enough that it can cause [mental health] problems," explains Katz.

Previous research has shown that premature babies have a wide range of health and developmental problems, but this is one of the first studies to look at the relationship between premature births and severe psychiatric disorder.


soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Mark Glicker

    Docs want a reason to get every kid on Psych drugs by first grade.

    June 3, 2012 at 03:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • endrun

      No, that's now by preschool. They benefit so much from Pharmaceutical business stock interests now, look for that to go back to the moment of first breath outside the womb before long.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:56 | Report abuse |
  2. Lou Cypher

    The "increase" could readily be behavioral, as premees have increased socialization with medical specialists early in life, and are therefore predisposed to seeking medical remedies when encountering difficulties in living, whether or not those difficulties have addressable causes in medical science or not.

    When those difficulties fall outside the scope of medical science, it is convenient for clergy, psychiatrists and pharmaceutical vendors (fully-licensed or not) to step in with alternative approaches.

    June 4, 2012 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. MSB

    Yeah, just today, I saw about 4 to 5 infants crawling on the sidewalk on their way to the doctor's office.

    June 4, 2012 at 09:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Kathy Steele

    Thanks for this article. Having had a "micro" preemie, I know from his very beginning he was "different," not just subtly, but in major ways that affected his functiong. Depressed, anxious, obsessive compulsive, spaced out. My other child had none of those problems. I'm surprised at the negative comments above. Sometimes, yes, things are over diagnosed, like bipolar. But sometimes there are very real physiological reasons for mental health problems. Read the literature on attachment, as an example. And my child also had a brain hemorrhage after birth that affected the prefrontal part of the brain–this also has an effect on emotions. My "preemie" is now 30, and after a long, hard road, is doing well on medication and functioning in the world. Without it he would have simply drowned a long time ago.

    June 4, 2012 at 11:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. NM Nurse

    Patients ALWAYS has a choice in their care.

    While a provider might be eager to prescribe a anti-psychotic or antidepressive, the patient always has the right to refuse, question or ask about alternatives. The provider is obligated to disclose the benefits and risks of any treatment. Patients also have the responsibility to educate themselves about all the options and ask questions so they can make the best decision in their care.

    As for the article, several factors may play a role in the development of depression of premature babies. Other studies have already shown a link with how trauma affects neural pathways negatively. It is also not uncommon for patients dealing with chronic illness (as some preemies might) to develop depression.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lisa Collins

    My daughter was a 25 week premature baby. Issues began presenting by age 2. She is now age 17 and at the state mental hospital awaiting placement in a long term residental treatment program that can also handle the anorexia and bulemia she struggles with. Currently they are telling me we are dealing with depression, OCD, ODD, and possible borderline personality disorder. I have felt all along that her difficulties stemmed from her prematurity and lenghty stay in the neonatal unit. FYI, numerous combination of psychotic meds have been tried and none of them really seem to help. She has a near genius IQ but can not control her thought processes. Sadly, she is like a female Edgar Allen Poe.

    June 4, 2012 at 21:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Lisa

    I think the lack of proper nutrition during that critical final trimester of brain development probably plays a huge role. My children arrived at 25 weeks 6 days and despite 4 month NICU stays, are flourishing at almost 3 years old – very bright, funny, wonderful kids. I took care both while pregnant and pumping breast milk for them to focus heavily on nutrients that they needed for brain development (DHA, choline, zinc, iron, iodine etc) – I wish I could know if my choices helped make them as bright as they are today, or if it may help them avoid mental illness as they grow.

    June 5, 2012 at 17:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. sherae

    My name is sherae, My mom was 13 years old, and 6 months pregnant with me when she had me. I was one pound and twelve ounces. I wasnt suppose to live but i did. I am now a healthy 20 year old except the fact i most likely have bi polar disorder, i also have ADHD, I cut myself when i am depressed. Not to kill myself just to ease the pain..of how i feel. My thoughts race. I have serious depression issues, and i hear other voices in my head. Am i crazy?

    November 7, 2012 at 20:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Crystal Pierce

    I have noticed about one thing actually more then one thing about since I was a premature baby I have noticed im more prone to infections the main one is UTI's and kidney infections.. The mental illness factor is truely right in it self I am bi-polor and severely A.D.D and my teachers were very impatient with me at times but knew I was very unique trust me I'm not tooting my own horn I was told that by everybody... My preacher always said the reason prematures are born is because they are excited to explore the world and learn more than others.. People who are premature from birth shouldn't be a shame us who we are...

    February 17, 2013 at 11:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Quintin Patten

    Premature birth is defined either as the same as preterm birth, or the birth of a baby before the developing organs are mature enough to allow normal postnatal survival. Premature infants are at greater risk for short and long term complications, including disabilities and impediments in growth and mental development. Significant progress has been made in the care of premature infants, but not in reducing the prevalence of preterm birth.,***

    Au revoir <http://healthmedicine101.com/index.php/

    July 1, 2013 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Elle

    I was a premie i don't know if it has something to do with that but i can remember being suicidal from the age of five and six.

    October 8, 2013 at 00:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. CAtherine

    i was three months early not even a pound i have had many struggles after i was born and continue to even at the age of 26 alot of the reseach ive done ha helped me understand some issues better i had brain hemorrages after birth and struggled y tremendously in school couldnt be in regular classes as a child into high school also .also i am bipolar and get sick alot ....

    October 16, 2013 at 20:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Scott

    I was a premie 2 lbs around 28 weeks. 40 years old now, can't tell where my problems come from. No diagnosis but wife says I'm depressed. Can't stand the thought of suicide but no idea what I'm living for.

    November 15, 2013 at 17:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Name*Sarah

    Finally!! I have been researching the correlation between Mental Health issues and premature births for years and have found very little information. I was born over 2 months premature, weighed only 2 lbs, and spent two months in the hospital with very little positive interaction. How can there not be trauma, when during the first two months of life, all one knows is being poked, prodded, and subjected to bright lights and noises?

    I have a hard time with emotional regulation and self harm, and have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and bordeline personality disorder. Here is the kicker – the people I most connect with and the ones that "truly get me" – are other people that have been born premature and have bordeline personality as well.

    This been said, I grew up in a very disfunctional and abusive family as well. I have siblings that were born full term and suffer from depression, mood swings, self harm, and intimacy impairment. I use to hate it when one of my sisters would state that my problems stemmed completely from being born premature, and not being sexually molested by our father.

    I fell this shows that most Mental Health issues are a combination of nature and nuture

    January 19, 2014 at 23:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Owen

    I was born premature, I have OCD and anxiety. Luckily it's not to bad though, it doesn't affect me much as I grew up with awesome parents and a great brother. And I have some cool friends.

    April 17, 2014 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply

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