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Half of Adults With Anxiety Disorders Had Psychiatric Diagnoses in Youth

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Science Update

About half of adults with an anxiety disorder had symptoms of some type of psychiatric illness by age 15, a NIMH-funded study shows. Researchers also found that some of the specific illnesses detected in youth were clues as to what kinds of anxiety disorders — there are several — the youth would have as adults. The results underscore the importance of early diagnosis and prevention of anxiety disorders, and suggest that different anxiety disorders may have different roots.

Results of the study were published in the February issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Anxiety disorders are among the most common psychiatric illnesses, with 28.81 percent of American adults diagnosed with one or more at some point in life. They include social and other phobias, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In this study, researchers examined the psychiatric histories, from ages 11 through 32, of 1,037 adults. Of the 232 adults with anxiety disorders, the most common childhood psychiatric illnesses — one-third of them — were anxiety disorders, followed by depression.

The researchers also found links between some disorders diagnosed in adulthood and those diagnosed during youth. Adults with PTSD had histories of extreme defiance and conduct disorders in childhood. Adults with obsessive-compulsive disorders tended to have had delusional beliefs and hallucinations as children. Phobias in adulthood tended to be linked to specific phobias that occurred during childhood.

Considering psychiatric history when diagnosing adult anxiety disorders could benefit diagnosis, prevention, and treatment, the study's authors write.

The research was a collaboration among NIMH-funded researchers Alice M. Gregory, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Karestan Koenen, of Goldsmith's College and King's College London, Duke University, and Harvard University, who were joined by Thalia C. Eley and Richie Poulton, of King's College London and University of Otago (New Zealand).

Gregory AM, Caspi A, Moffitt, TE, Koenen K, Eley TC, Poulton R. Juvenile Mental Health Histories of Adults With Anxiety Disorders . American Journal of Psychiatry, 164:1-8. February 2007.

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