Early Life Stress May Have Greater Impact on Extreme Preemies' Mental Health

A new Canadian study finds that childhood stress may pose an even greater mental health risk to adults who were extremely low birth weight preemies (2.2 pounds or less) than to those born at normal weight.

In particular, decreased exposure to bullying and family problems during childhood and adolescence is linked to a lower risk of adult mental illness in extreme low birth weight preemies. Early mental health support for these children and their parents could also prove beneficial.

“In terms of major stresses in childhood and adolescence, preterm survivors appear to be impacted more than those born at normal birth weight,” said Ryan J. Van Lieshout, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University and the Albert Einstein/Irving Zucker Chair in Neuroscience.

“If we can find meaningful interventions for extremely low birth weight survivors and their parents, we can improve the lives of preterm survivors and potentially prevent the development of depression and anxiety in adulthood.”

The researchers used the McMaster Extremely Low Birth Weight (ELBW) Cohort, which involves a group of 179 extremely low birth weight survivors and 145 normal birth weight controls born between 1977 and 1982, which has 40 years’ worth of data.

The findings reveal that although these preemies were not necessarily exposed to a larger number of risk factors compared to their normal birth weight counterparts, these stressors appeared to have a greater impact on their mental health as adults.

Besides bullying by peers and a small circle of friends, researchers looked at a number of other risk factors, including maternal anxiety or depression and family dysfunction.

“We believe it may be helpful to monitor and provide support for the mental health of mothers of preemies, in particular, as for the purposes of this study, they were the primary caregiver,” said Van Lieshout.

“There can also be family strain associated with raising a preemie and all the related medical care, which can lead to difficulties. Support for the family in a variety of forms might also be beneficial.”

The study builds on previous research showing that extremely low birth weight survivors have an increased risk of mental illness in adulthood.

“We are concerned that being born really small and being exposed to all the stresses associated with preterm birth can lead to an amplification of normal stresses that predispose people to develop depression and anxiety later in life,” said Van Lieshout.

The findings are published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Source: McMaster University