University of Georgia

Parental depression forecasts kids’ later physical health

Mother and child

When parents suffer from depression, kids may be at risk for physical health problems in young adulthood, according to a study from researchers including the University of Georgia’s Katherine Ehrlich.

The results revealed an association between parental depression and youth metabolic syndrome—a condition that forecasts substantially increased risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Image of Katherine Ehrlich
Katherine Ehrlich

“The good news is that while parental depression was associated with metabolic syndrome in young adulthood, we found that there were characteristics that served as protective factors,” said Ehrlich, lead author and assistant professor of psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “The link was diminished for young adults who reported high levels of self-regulation and healthy lifestyles, important factors that shape physical health.”

Previous research has shown that exposure to an accumulation of adverse childhood experiences—like poverty, maltreatment and mental illness in the family—can have a lasting influence on adult physical health, particularly chronic diseases associated with aging, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and some cancers.

This study focused on whether chronic exposure to parental depression across adolescence was predictive of youths’ later metabolic syndrome, a cluster of interrelated metabolic abnormalities that includes high blood pressure and blood sugar.

The sample for this study was taken from a larger sample of African American youths and their primary caregivers led by principal investigator Gene Brody, director of UGA’s Center for Family Research.

The subjects participated in 11 waves of data collection across childhood (ages 11-18) and into young adulthood. At age 25, 391 participants agreed to take part in a blood draw to assess young adult metabolic syndrome.

A diagnosis of metabolic syndrome involves high waist circumference (with ethnic and sex-specific cutoffs) plus two of the following four components: high blood pressure, raised triglyceride levels, raised fasting glucose levels and low levels of high-density lipoproteins (“good” cholesterol). The team’s analyses revealed that parental depression in adolescence was associated with a composite score reflecting components of metabolic syndrome in early adulthood.

They also found two factors that moderated this association: self-regulation—the ability to regulate and control attention, emotions and behavior—and a lack of unhealthy behaviors involving factors like diet, exercise, sleep and substance use.

But for youths with low self-regulation and two or more unhealthy behaviors—e.g., unhealthy diet and poor sleep—more exposure to parental depression was associated with components of metabolic syndrome at age 25.

“It’s not just parental depression—it’s parental depression in the context of low self-regulation and unhealthy behaviors,” Ehrlich said. “All three variables are important.”

“This study is a strong reminder that coping with chronic stress, for some young people, may affect the functioning of physiological systems in a way that increases their likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome, a precursor to many chronic diseases that appear during adulthood,” said Brody, emeritus professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Ehrlich noted that while the team’s findings suggested that parental depressive symptoms were associated with a higher composite score for metabolic syndrome, there’s still hope for individuals who are just starting to show these warning signs of poor health. Factors that make up the metabolic syndrome composite are modifiable and can change in response to changes in diet, exercise, sleep and other aspects of self-care.

“For young adults exposed to a depressed parent in adolescence, efforts to promote self-regulation and healthy behaviors may be particularly important in establishing physical health as they move toward their 30s,” she said.

The research was published in the journal Child Development and is available online at