Asthma is a chronic condition that affects millions of children. Although many outgrow asthma as they mature, it can still have significant consequences during childhood. Many children feel left out as they are limited in physical activity. Others report being bullied because of their asthma.
Understanding the risk factors for asthma could reduce the incidences in childhood and improve children’s quality of life. One area of research that has received much attention is the relationship between maternal anxiety and childhood asthma. Some studies have shown that mothers who are highly anxious during pregnancy have children more vulnerable to asthma. Others have suggested a link between a mother’s anxieties in her child’s first years as a predictor of childhood asthma.
But until now, no study has looked at how a mother’s anxiety affects her child’s asthma risk using a twin study. Assessing the offspring of maternal twins is a novel way of examining the familial factors, shared environmental factors, and unique independent environmental factors of a child.
To accomplish this, Ida Havland of the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden led a study that involved 1,691 twin mothers and their teenage children. The children and mothers reported asthma symptoms and the mothers were assessed for somatic, trait and psychic anxiety.
Havland found that although there was a strong relationship between maternal anxiety and childhood asthma symptoms as reported by the children and mothers, there was only a weak association between maternal anxiety and a clinical diagnosis of asthma. In fact, the children of anxious mothers reported breathlessness as their main symptom, but few were on medication.
When Havland looked at shared environmental risks and family risks, she found that the associations revealed for maternal-child risks were similar to those of aunt-child risks. In other words, children were just as likely to have asthma whether the anxiety was present in their mother or their aunt. This finding suggests a familial risk that may outweigh that of environment.
Havland added, “A likely candidate for explaining this familial confounding is heritable personality traits associated with both anxiety and subjective measures of asthma.” Although these results shed new light on the risks for childhood asthma, more work should be done on twin samples to better identify specific risks and to determine how they can be minimized.
Havland, I., Lundholm, C., Lichtenstein, P., Neiderhiser, J.M., Ganiban, J.M., et al. (2013). The observed association between maternal anxiety and adolescent asthma: Children of twin design suggest familial effects. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66040. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.006604
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