Postpartum Depression Risk Higher With Family Psych History

Mothers who have a family history of any psychiatric disorder have almost two times the risk of postpartum depression as do mothers without such history, according to a new study.

Mette-Marie Zacher Kjeldsen, MSc, with the National Centre for Register-based Research at Aarhus (Denmark) University, led the study, a meta-analysis that included 26 studies with information on 100,877 women.

Findings were published online in JAMA Psychiatry.

When mothers had a family history of psychiatric disorders, the odds ratio for PPD was 2.08 (95% confidence interval, 1.67-2.59). That corresponds to a risk ratio of 1.79 (95% CI, 1.52-2.09), assuming a 15% postpartum depression prevalence in the general population.

Not Doomed to Develop PPD

Polina Teslyar, MD, a perinatal psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told this news organization it’s important to point out that though the risk is higher, women with a family psychiatric history should not feel as though they are destined to develop PPD.

“You are still more likely to not have postpartum depression, but it is important to be aware of personal risk factors so that if a person is experiencing that, they ask for help quickly rather than suffering and not knowing something is amiss,” she emphasized. Teslyar says she does see the higher risk for PPD, which is preventable and treatable, in her own practice when women have had a family history of psychiatric disorders.

The association makes sense, but literature on why that is has been varied, she said, and likely involves both genetics and socioeconomic factors. It’s difficult to tease apart how big a part each plays.

In her perinatal practice she sees women even before they are pregnant to discuss risk factors for PPD so she does ask about family history of psychiatric disorders, specifically about history of PPD and anxiety.

The researchers suggest routine perinatal care should include an easy low-cost, two-part question about both personal and family history of psychiatric disorders.

“As the assessment is possible even prior to conception, this would leave time for planning preventive efforts, such as psychosocial and psychological interventions targeting these at-risk women,” the authors write.

Asking About Family History a Challenge

Teslyar noted though that one of the challenges in asking about family history is that families may not have openly shared psychiatric history details with offspring. Family members may also report conditions they suspect a family member had rather than having a documented diagnosis.

In places where there is universal health care, she noted, finding documented diagnoses is easier, but otherwise “you’re really taking a subjective interpretation.”

The researchers found that subgroup, sensitivity, and meta–regression analyses aligned with the primary findings. The overall certainty of evidence was graded as moderate.

This study was not able to make clear how the specific diagnoses of family members affect the risk of developing PPD because much of the data from the studies came from self-report and questions were not consistent across the studies.

For instance, only 7 studies asked specifically about first-degree family members and 10 asked about specific diagnoses. Diagnoses ranged from mild affective disorders to more intrusive disorders, such as schizophrenia.

And while this study doesn’t seek to determine why the family history and risk of PPD appear to be connected, the authors offer some possible explanations.

“Growing up in an environment with parents struggling with mental health problems potentially influences the social support received from these parents when going into motherhood,” the authors write. “This particular explanation is supported by umbrella reviews concluding that lack of social support is a significant PPD risk factor.”

Screening, extraction, and assessment of studies included was done independently by two reviewers, increasing validity, the authors note.

The authors state that approximately 10%-15% of new mothers experience PPD, but Teslyar points out the numbers in the United States are typically quoted at up to 20%-30%. PPD ranges from mild to severe episodes and includes symptoms like those for major depression outside the postpartum period.

Study authors received funding from The Lundbeck Foundation and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme. A coauthor, Vibe G. Frokjaer, MD, PhD, has served as consultant and lecturer for H. Lundbeck and Sage Therapeutics. No other disclosures were reported. Teslyar reports no relevant financial relationships.

This story originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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