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October 1997

Offspring of Depressed Parents10 Years Later

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University (Drs Weissman, Wickramaratne, Moreau, and Olfson), and Division of Clinical and Genetic Epidemiology, New York State Psychiatric Institute (Drs Weissman, Wickramaratne, and Olfson and Ms Warner), New York, NY.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1997;54(10):932-940. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1997.01830220054009

Background:  There have been numerous studies that have shown that offspring of depressed parents are at a high risk for major depressive disorder (MDD) and impairment. None have followed up the offspring into adulthood to obtain more precise estimates of risk.

Method:  One hundred eighty-two offspring from 91 families, in which 1 or more parents had MDD (high risk) or in which neither parent was depressed (low risk), were blindly reassessed in the third follow-up, using a structured diagnostic instrument 10 years after their initial identification.

Results:  Compared with the offspring for whom neither parent was depressed, the offspring of depressed parents had increased rates of MDD, particularly before puberty, and phobias (both at approximately a 3-fold risk), panic disorder, alcohol dependence (at a 5-fold risk), and greater social impairment. The peak age at onset for MDD in both high- and low-risk offspring ranged from 15 to 20 years. The peak age at onset for anxiety disorder was considerably earlier, especially in female offspring in the high-risk group. The onset of alcohol dependence in the offspring in the high-risk group peaked in adolescence and then after the age of 25 years. The depressed offspring of depressed parents, compared with nondepressed parents, had more serious and impairing depressions during the follow-up period but were less likely to go for treatment.

Conclusions:  The offspring of depressed parents are a high-risk group for onset of anxiety disorder and MDD in childhood, MDD in adolescence, and alcohol dependence in adolescence and early adulthood. The findings support the potential value of early detection in the offspring of depressed parents.