Childhood physical health problems could lead to mental health issues later in life

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  • Links between physical and mental illness may be more complex than previously thought
  • A recent study shows that physical health problems during childhood can lead to depression in adulthood
  • This was specifically linked to children with high BMI and insulin disruptions


A recent study shows that there may be a greater link between physical health problems and mental illness than previously thought, as the results indicate that physical health issues detected during childhood may be linked to the development of mental illness during adulthood.

Measuring fasting insulin and BMI

Researchers at the University of Cambridge studied how insulin levels and body mass index (BMI) of 10 463 participants could be linked to psychosis and depression.

Methods used in order to achieve the aims of the study involved measuring the insulin levels and BMI of participants who were between the ages of one and 24 years.

“Fasting insulin levels were measured at 9, 15, 18, and 24 years, and BMI was measured at 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 18, and 24 years,” the researchers explained.

Fasting insulin levels are used to test insulin sensitivity, measure the amount of insulin in the body and to monitor insulin resistance.

Mental disorder may not come first

The researchers found that insulin levels that were persistently high (from mid-childhood onwards) were associated with a higher chance of suffering from depression in adulthood – especially among females.

The study further suggests that signs of developing physical illness are presented long before signs of mental illness – indicating that the association between mental and physical illness is far more complex than previously assumed. 

“The general assumption in the past has been that some people with psychosis and depression might be more likely to have a poor diet and lower levels of physical exercise, so any adverse physical health problems are a result of the mental disorder, or the treatment for it,” says first author of the study, Dr Benjamin Perry.

“In essence, the received wisdom is that the mental disorder comes first. But we’ve found that this isn’t necessarily the case, and for some individuals, it may be the other way around, suggesting that physical health problems detectable from childhood might be risk factors for adult psychosis and depression.”

Intervention may reduce mortality caused by mental illness

The researchers also found that certain factors at adolescence which could lead to an increased BMI might be important risk factors that could contribute to adulthood depression.

Dr Perry concluded: “These findings are an important reminder that all young people presenting with mental health problems should be offered a full and comprehensive assessment of their physical health in tandem with their mental health.

“Intervening early is the best way to reduce the mortality gap sadly faced by people with mental disorders like depression and psychosis.”

Image credit: Pixabay

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