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Low Birth Weight and Depression
CITATION:   Thompson, C., Syddal, H., et al.  (2001)  Birth weight and the risk of depressive disorders in late life.  The British Journal of Psychiatry 179: 450-455.

ABSTRACT:  This purpose of this study was to determine if low birth weight is a risk factor for depression in later life that could lead to coronary problems, diabetes, stroke and hypertension. The researchers used 882 individuals born in the 1920s. They recorded the individual’s birth weight and the weight when they were one year old.  When the test subjects were 68 years of age they all completed the Geriatric Depression Scale. Additionally, 867 of the subjects completed the Geriatric Mental State Examination. The researchers used a logistic regression equation to analyze the relationship between depression, and the birth weight and weight at one year of age. The equation was adjusted for known risk factors. The risk for depression among men, but not women, increased incrementally with a decreasing birth weight. The conclusion drawn was that prenatal under nutrition make men much more susceptible to depression later in life. This increased their vulnerability to diseases such as coronary diseases, stroke, hypertension and diabetes.

Hormonal programming.  The relationship between undernutrition and later disease is mediated by persisting changes to the internal environment of the individual. In particular there are long-lasting effects known as ‘hormonal programming’ in which the plasma levels of hormones or the set points of neuroendocrine systems are altered permanently. These have been shown to occur in the hypothalamic—pituitary—adrenal (HPA), growth-hormone, thyroxine and insulin axes. There is a clear association between depressive disorder and cardiovascular disease in community samples (Vaillant, 1998) and this relationship is still present after controlling for smoking (Anda et al, 1993). The association is stronger in men than in women (Hippisley-Cox et al, 1998). The cause of the association is unknown and in some cases it may be simply a reaction to the physical disability. Other commentators have suggested that depression itself may induce physical disease, possibly by increasing levels of stress hormones (Dinan, 1998). Another possibility that has not been discussed previously is that both depression and cardiovascular disease may share a common vulnerability factor in foetal life. 


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