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Is low birth weight related to psychological distress in adulthood?

Being underweight at the period of gestation has a profound effect on the psychological behavior in adulthood. It has been found // that although children even if born full term but weighing below 5.5 lbs are at 50% risk towards psychological distress in their adulthood. This being the same after taking into consideration various factors likes father’s social class, adult marital status and maternal age. Until recently it has been unclear whether the effect of low birth weight on common mental health problems in later life is direct, or is affected by childhood factors, such as IQ or behavioral problems.

A study published in July issue of British Journal of Psychiatry was initiated in 1950, comprising of 5572 patients undertaken by researchers of University of Bristol in collaboration with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The researchers examined the relationship between bodyweight at gestational age and later adult psychological distress in which also the cognitive impairment in childhood was taken in to account.

Dr Nicola Wiles, from Bristol University and lead author on the study, commented: "The findings suggest that low birth weight at full term has a direct effect on adult mental health, rather than simply reflecting a pathway through childhood cognition and/or behavior. This is an interesting finding that requires replication in other studies but suggests that early factors, before birth, might be important in increasing vulnerability to depression in adult life".

No increase in risk was found in those of low birth weight who were born early, before 38 weeks. Similarly, pre-term delivery was not associated with an increased risk of psychological distress in adulthood.

As found in previous studies, low birth weight was associated with an increased risk of cognitive deficit (having an IQ of less than 100) at the age of seven, and with childhood behavioral disorder. This effect was observed among t hose born early as well as those born at term.

IQ of less than 100 at age seven was associated with an increased risk of psychological distress in adulthood. But taking into account IQ and behavioral factors did not alter the strength of the association between low birth weight at full term and adult psychological distress.

Low birth weight for gestational age is a marker for impaired fetal growth. The observed association with adult psychological distress provides further evidence for the theory that common mental health problems in adulthood may be due to impaired neuro-development, as has been suggested in schizophrenia.

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