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Birth Weight Tied to
Risk of Adulthood Stress


Excerpt By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Lower birth weight and slower weight gain early in life may be associated with poorer psychological health in adulthood, new research suggests.

The study of more than 9,700 UK adults followed since birth found that as birth weight increased, the risk of psychological distress in adulthood declined. The same association was found for weight gain until the age of 7, according to findings published in the October 5th issue of the British Medical Journal.

On a brighter note, though, the study authors also found that relatively rapid weight gain after birth may compensate for the potential ill effect of lower birth weight on later psychological health. They note that small size at birth is usually followed by some degree of "postnatal catch up."

Exactly why lower birth weight and poorer weight gain might affect psychological health down the road is unclear. One hypothesis is that early "growth failure" leads to changes in stress hormones, Yin Bun Cheung, the study's lead author, told Reuters Health.

Cheung, a researcher at the National Cancer Center in Singapore, explained that in some research, children with impaired growth have been found to have higher concentrations of the hormone cortisol and to be "more responsive" to stressful situations.

"The main contribution of the present study is to show that the relation persists into middle age," said Cheung.

The findings are based on data from UK adults who were followed from birth in 1958 until at least age 23, and up to age 42. As adults, participants filled out a questionnaire on psychological and physical health that gauged their levels of distress.

Overall, about 6% of men showed "high distress" at age 23, as did 18% of women, based on psychological test scores. At age 42, about 15% of men and 22% of women were considered highly distressed.

When the researchers looked at participants' birth weights, they found that as these weights increased, the risk of adulthood psychological distress dipped. The same was true of weight gain by age 7.

According to Cheung's team, these findings echo those of an earlier study in which higher birth weight was tied to a lower risk of psychological distress at age 26. They add that the study is "in line with the hypothesis that people with impaired growth early in life will become more susceptible to stress."

However, the researchers point out, the findings also suggest that "the impact of smaller size at birth is partly compensated by a higher weight gain in infancy."

According to Cheung, the researchers may conduct similar studies of populations in Singapore and Hong Kong to see whether these findings extend to other ethnic groups and cultures.

SOURCE: British Medical Journal 2002;325:749-751.


Reference Source 89

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