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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Mothers with psychological distress ‘have fatter children’

Embargoed until 09 September 2009

The children of mothers with psychological distress are at greater risk of obesity.

Psychiatrists from the University of Liverpool set out to examine the relationship between maternal psychological distress and obesity in their children. They present their findings today at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry annual meeting in Dublin.

Dr Lakshmiprabha Ramasubramanian and Professor Atif Rahman used data from mothers and children who participated in the Millennium Cohort Study.

Almost a fifth (18%) of the children studied was found to be overweight at the age of three. A further 5% were obese. Almost 4% of the mothers in the study scored highly on the Kessler 6 scale – a scale which measures people’s psychological distress.

Analysis of the data showed that mothers with serious psychological distress were significantly more likely to have children who were overweight or obese.

Psychological distress is defined as a score of 13 or more out of 24 on the Kessler 6 scale. The Kessler 6 scale is simple questionnaire used in general health surveys and population studies to screen people for mental health problems such as low mood and anxiety.

Dr Ramasubramanian said: “Our results suggest that maternal psychological distress is associated with a higher likelihood of early childhood obesity and may increase the risk of children being overweight at the age of 3. It is important to note that this study has its limitations as it is based on data from one time point only and also that there could be other factors that have not been adjusted for. Further studies are needed in this area.”

Dr Ramasubramanian continued: “Childhood obesity has been described as a ‘global epidemic’ by the World Health Organisation, and the UK government has set an ambitious target of stopping the escalating trend by 2010. With this is mind, it is clear that more needs to be done to investigate the many factors that contribute to childhood obesity. Further studies are needed to address factors that may be modifiable to be able to address the rising trend in childhood obesity.”

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Annual meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dublin, 9 - 11 September 2009


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