There are a number of existing studies that address the association between low birth weight and psychological distress and depression later in life. However, according to a new meta-analysis conducted by Wojtek Wojcik of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry of King’s College in London, that evidence may be somewhat distorted. It has been well established that children born underweight are at increased risk for a number of negative health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and even diabetes. But the link between low birth weight and mental health is much weaker.
Wojcik examined a number of studies and found 18 that looked specifically at birth weight in relation to distress and depression in adulthood. Factors that often accompany low birth weight, including malnutrition, famine, and physical illnesses, were not included in these studies so that a clear conclusion could be drawn. Wojcik found that although there was some modest evidence of a link between depression and low birth weight, it was much weaker than has been previously reported. In fact, compared to those children born at normal weights, those with low birth weight had only a slightly higher chance of developing depression.
Wojcik contributes these results to author bias and reporting inaccuracy. In fact, much of the data used in these studies was gathered from parental and caregiver reports, which relies solely on recollection and can be far from accurate. Also, Wojcik believes that authors often sensationalize their results by giving the most attention to their positive, albeit slight, findings of associations. “This suggests a preference for authors and journals to report positive findings while null findings are often downplayed, a phenomenon widely recognized,” said Wojcik. Finally, many of the studies that were examined in this analysis did not put emphasis on secondary exposure risks and instead emphasized low birth weight as the prominent risk factor for future psychological distress. Wojcik hopes these current results present a clearer picture of the true relationship between low birth weight and depression, which does actually exist, but is quite weak independent of other risk factors.
Wojcik, W., et al. Foetal origins of depression? A systematic review and meta-analysis of low birth weight and later depression. Psychological medicine 43.1 (2013): 1-12. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.
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