Skip to content

Adult Children of Depressed Parents Have Higher Risk of Mental and Physical Illness

Science Update

As children of depressed parents enter adulthood, they continue to suffer greater risk of mental disorders and begin to report more physical illnesses than grown-up children of non-depressed parents. Researchers funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), published their findings from a 20-year follow-up study on offspring of depressed and non-depressed parents in the June issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

At the 20-year follow-up, the average age of the study participants was 35. Those with at least one depressed parent had about a threefold higher risk for developing mood disorders (mostly major depressive disorder) and anxiety disorders (mostly phobias), more than twofold greater risk for alcohol dependence, and sixfold greater risk for drug dependence. Though occurring at greater rates in children of depressed parents, the peak ages of onset for mood and anxiety disorders were similar to those seen in children of non-depressed parents.

Major depressive disorder peaked between ages 15–20, with females comprising the majority of cases; males showed a gradual increase between ages 15–30. The incidence of anxiety disorders was much earlier than for major depressive disorder, peaking before age 10 and tapering off. A second smaller peak in incidence between ages 28 and 32 in offspring with at least one depressed parent was largely attributed to panic disorders among females. Substance dependence among children of depressed parents also peaked between ages 15–20 and was largely attributed to males.

Overall, the offspring of depressed parents showed lower functioning, greater use of outpatient mental health treatment, and more continuous mental health treatment (over the course of months or years), although more than half of the subjects received no psychiatric treatment. In addition to mental disorders, they reported more medical problems, particularly cardiovascular problems with a fivefold increase, and an average age of onset in the early to mid-30s.

This report builds upon findings from similar studies that emphasize the importance of treating depressed parents to benefit their offspring, and for detecting and treating mental disorders early in life to offset or prevent the long-term effects of these chronic disorders.

Weissman MM, Wickramaratne P, Nomura Y, Warner V, Pilowsky D, Verdeli H. Offspring of Depressed Parents: 20 Years Later . The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2006 June;163(6):1001-1007.