Suicide Risk May Trace Back to Womb

Low birth weight, teen mothers increase odds, study says

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HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sep. 23, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- While it may seem strange, what happened to you in the womb may affect your suicide risk later in life.

That's the conclusion of a study in the Sept. 25 issue of The Lancet that found if you were born to a teenage mother or had a low birth weight, the odds are higher that you might commit suicide as a teenager or young adult.

"I believe that it is an interaction between prenatal, genetic, and environmental conditions in which children were born and raised in [that contributed to the increased risk of suicide]," said the study's author, Dr. Danuta Wasserman, head of the Swedish National Center for Suicide Research and Prevention of Mental Ill-Health in Stockholm.

"Teenage motherhood is very stressful, and can be associated with poor diet, abuse, and also psychiatric disorders and psychological disturbances. These poor psychosocial conditions can influence gene expression that regulate effects like aggressivity, impulsivity and anxiety in vulnerable individuals."

Dr. Maria Oquendo, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, who authored an editorial that accompanies the study in the same issue of the journal, had a reassuring message for parents. "Just because your baby is low-weight or you were young when they were born doesn't mean that they're at high risk for suicide." She said the study only found an association between those factors and suicide, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

Each year, almost 30,000 people in the United States commit suicide, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). For each successful suicide, between eight and 25 people attempt suicide. It is the third leading cause of death in 15-to-24 year-olds, according to SAMHSA.

For this study, researchers gathered data from the Swedish birth register for all children born between 1973 and 1980. They found complete records on 713,370 youngsters.

As of Dec. 31, 1999, 563 of those children had committed suicide, and another 6,676 had attempted suicide.

The average suicide rate in Sweden is about 20 per 100,000 people, according to the researchers. Children born to teenage mothers and children who weighed less than 2 kilograms (about 4.5 pounds) at birth had more than double that risk.

Factors that increased the risk of suicide and attempted suicide included birth length (less than 47 centimeters), less than 12 years of maternal education, and being fourth or later in the family's birth order. A maternal age of more than 29 years appeared to be somewhat protective, lowering the risk of attempted suicide by 15 percent.

The researchers didn't look at the impact fathers might have on their offspring's risk of suicide.

Wasserman said the results of this study mean that "we need to monitor and support young mothers during their pregnancy and follow up those newborn children who are at risk with psychosocial and educational measures about diet, misuse of drugs, and coping skills, and to help with emotional and practical support when needed. Doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors, etc., need to be alerted that prevention needs to start before a child is born."

Oquendo agreed, and added that this study highlights "the importance of maternal nutrition and the need for improved healthcare for pregnant mothers."

More information

To learn more about the warning signs of suicide and what you can do to help someone contemplating suicide, visit the American Association of Suicidology.

SOURCES: Danuta Wasserman, M.D., professor of psychiatry and suicidology, and chairman, department of public health sciences, Karolinska Institute, and head, Swedish National Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention of Mental Ill-Health, Stockholm, Sweden; Maria Oquendo, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry, Columbia University, New York City; Sept. 25, 2004, The Lancet

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