Calculating Risk of Youth Bipolar Disorder

July 31, 2018

"Daniella Hafeman of the University of Pittsburgh described a risk calculator for predicting an individual’s risk for bipolar disorder, which is available at www.pediatricbipolar.pitt.edu. Possible factors included in the risk calculation include a parent’s early age of onset of bipolar disorder, mood shifts early in life, a child’s anxiety or depression symptoms, later affective mood shifts, and new onset of subthreshold mania.Editor’s Note: A “poor man’s” assessment of risk can also be of help to a family or clinician. There are four components. The first is genetic. Having one parent with bipolar disorder is a potent risk factor, and can be further magnified if the other parent also has a mood disorder. If three or more first degree relatives or three or more generations of first degree relatives have a mood disorder, this further increases risk four- to six-fold.Perinatal vulnerability is another factor. Beyond these genetic vulnerabilities, a history of maternal toxoplasmosis or a viral infection during pregnancy, or the infant being noticeably underweight at birth can contribute to bipolar risk.Childhood adversity also contributes to vulnerability to early onset of bipolar illness. A history of psychosocial stress in the child’s early years, such as abuse or abandonment, can be an added risk factor.Prodromal or preliminary symptoms are also a risk factor. The development of an anxiety or depressive disorder, a disruptive behavioral disorder, or a bipolar not-otherwise-specified diagnosis (BP-NOS, used to describe manic symptoms of short duration) further increases risk. In studies by David Axelson and Boris Birmaher, 50% of children with an initial diagnosis of BP-NOS developed full-blown bipolar I or II illness upon several years of followup if there was a family history of bipolar disorder. About one-third converted to full bipolar disorder if there was no family history of bipolar disorder.Thus, if a child has three or all four types of risk factors, their risk would be substantial. In this case, one might consider attempts at prevention. This could include a good diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, regular exercise, joining a school sports team, developing good sleep habits, playing a musical instrument, and engaging in something akin to family focused therapy. Family focused therapy emphasizes psychoeducation, good communication skills, and problem solving. Attending to and treating parents’ symptoms and building a support system for both parents and the child can also help.While these endeavors are not a guarantee to prevent the onset of more severe illness, they are all health-promoting in general and have few downsides.

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