How A Mother's Age Could Affect The Mental Health Of Her Children

New research suggests that older mothers may be more likely to have depressive daughters.
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Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

There's a lot of scary research out there on how parents' ages impact their children. Some studies suggest that children of older parents have an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, while other studies suggest that children of teenaged parents face an increased risk of mood disorders, juvenile crime and substance abuse. These studies don't necessarily prove that a parent's age at a child's birth actually causes anything, but they do provide insight into the complicated factors that may contribute to detrimental outcomes.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Western Australia turn their attention to symptoms of depression and anxiety, rather than actual diagnoses, to see how parents' ages might impact children who don't meet the criteria for psychiatric diagnosis.

The Setup

Researchers studied 1,220 mothers and fathers from the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study. Participants were recruited during pregnancy at hospitals between 1989 and 1991. The researchers followed up with these parents for 20 years through surveys where parents reported their children's symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.

To rule out previously established "key predictors of mental health outcomes," the researchers controlled for maternal education, maternal smoking during the first 18 weeks of pregnancy, maternal experience of stressful life events in the first 18 weeks of pregnancy, total family income and maternal diagnosis of gestational hypertension.

The Findings

The researchers found that, compared to daughters of mothers who gave birth between ages 25 and 29, daughters of mothers who gave birth between ages 30 and 34 had a significant increased risk of showing symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. This risk increased for daughters of mothers who gave birth over the age of 35. The researchers didn't find a link between father's age and daughter's symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress, nor did they find a link between parental age and the mental health of sons.

Previous studies that measured actual diagnoses have found links between older dads and mood disorders. Since this new study found opposing results, the researchers hypothesize that, when it comes to symptoms -- and not full-blown diagnoses -- the link between mothers' ages and daughters' mental health could have more to do with interactions with the parent than biology. They write that mothers in the study "may have played a greater caregiving role" than fathers, which could have led to this nuanced discrepancy.

The Takeaway

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what caused daughters in the study to develop symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress -- after all, the phenomenon may have had nothing to do with the mothers' ages at time their daughters were born. The researchers write that perhaps it had more to do with the mothers' ages when they reported their daughters' symptoms, not the age they gave birth. Or the link could be attributed to the fact that older women are more susceptible to menopause and major health problems, which may have stressed out daughters at the time their moms were surveyed.

The point is: There are a lot of potential confounding variables here, so don't put too much stock in these findings until more research is done.

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