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Prenatal depression seems to be increasing in prevalence

UK study finds it’s 51% more common among young mothers now than it was in their own mothers

Louise Prime

Monday, 16 July 2018

Prenatal depression might be much more common among young mothers now than it was a generation ago, according to UK research. The authors of the study*, published in JAMA Network Open, said an increase in prevalence of prenatal depression has important implications for families, health care professionals, and society because of the associated costs, and its consequences for the mother, the child, and the wider society.

Researchers led from the University of Bristol analysed findings from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to compare the prevalence of depressive symptoms in pregnancy, in women aged 19-24 years, across two generations. Participants were the 2,390 original mothers (recruited when they were pregnant in 1990 to 1992) and 180 of their female offspring, or female partners of their male offspring, who became pregnant in 2012-16; all lived in Avon, Southwest England.

For both generations, levels of depression were measured using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), a 10-item self-report measure designed to screen women for symptoms of depression both during and after pregnancy. High levels of depressive symptoms were defined as a score of 13 or greater on the EPDS.

The study authors reported that having high depressive symptom scores was significantly more common in the second generation of young pregnant women than in their mothers’ generation (relative risk, RR 1.51); adjusting for age, parity, education, smoking, and body mass index did not substantially change this difference. They also found that maternal prenatal depression was associated with daughters’ prenatal depression (RR 3.33).

The researchers acknowledged that although they controlled for many potential confounders there were still certain differences between generations that they could not account for, that could contribute to the difference they observed. One example was that the average age of motherhood today is higher than in the 1990s, so there might now be greater isolation or stigma among 19-24-year-old mums than there used to be.

They also noted that people with mental health problems are less likely to take part in research, but they said it was unlikely that a 51% increase in the rate of depressed mood could be explained by contemporary pregnant women who are depressed responding more frequently than pregnant women who were similarly depressed in the early 1990s.

They concluded: “Depressed mood may be higher [sic] in young pregnant women today than in their mothers’ generation. Because of the multiple and diverse consequences of prenatal depression, an increase in prevalence has important implications for families, health care professionals, and society.”


*Pearson RM, Carnegie RE, Cree C, et al. Prevalence of prenatal depression symptoms among two generations of pregnant mothers: the Avon longitudinal study of parents and children. JAMA Network Open 2018; 1(3): e180725. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0725.

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