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Childhood Depression – Link to Adult Obesity?


Penn State College of Medicine




  • 65% of Americans are considered overweight and 18% are considered obese with a body mass index (BMI)  > 30 kg m2 (Flegal 2002)
  • 10% of Americans are thought to suffer from major depression (MDD) (Kessler 1994)
  • 2% of Children and 4-8% of adolescents suffer from MDD (Birmaher 1998)


Adverse Health Effects of Obesity  (Must 1999)

  • Type II Diabetes Mellitus
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Coronary heart disease
  • High Blood Cholesterol
  • Hypertension (HTN)
  • Osteoarthritis 
  • Obese females on average earn lower wages
  • Obese males are less likely to marry
  • Thought that obesity leads to depression because the social stigmatization causes embarrassment, shame, and guilt
  • Most studies have focused on obesity causing depression and not the reverse (Stunkard 2003)


Neurobiological Link for Depression causing Obesity (Wurtman 1993)

  • Serotonin connection – theorized that low serotonin levels in depressed patients cause them to ingest meals high in carbohydrates
  • Carbohydrates derive their behavioral effects by increasing blood insulin.  Insulin in turn depresses the production of most large neutral amino acids except tryptophan.  Increased tryptophan causes increased serotonin in the brain and decreased depression 


Serotonin Connection

  • Overweight individuals report eating more when anxious, depressed, or alone.  Normal weight individuals do not show these behaviors.
  • Plasma serotonin levels have been shown to be lower in obese carbohydrate cravers than obese/lean non-carbohydrate cravers.  Consumption of large carbohydrate meals in obese individuals is often associated with mood disturbances. (Wurtman 1993)



Can Childhood Depression be
Linked to Obesity?


Review of Recent Literature


Study #1

  • Pine et al (2001) studied children 6 to 17 yrs old with major depression (n=90) or no psychiatric disorder (n=87)
  • Children were followed up 10 to 15 yrs later
  • Psychiatric status was evaluated at both intake and follow-up
  • BMI was recorded in adulthood
  • Participants with major depression had a BMI of 26.1+/- 5.2 as adults while those without depression had a BMI of 24.2 +/- 4.1
  • First study to show a correlation between Childhood Depression and Adult BMI
  • A number of other confounding variables were examined such as age, gender, cigarette and alcohol use, and poverty
  • The only other variable that correlated with obesity was poverty
  • Using multivariate statistics it was shown that depression correlated with an increased BMI independent of poverty
  • Limitation – small study size


Study #2

  • Goodman et al (2002)
  • A prospective cohort study of 9374 adolescents in grades 7 to 12 who completed in home interviews for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health
  • Depressed mood was assessed with the Center for Epidemiologic Depression Scale
  • BMI was calculated from self-reported height and weight.
  • Obesity was defined as BMI> 95th percentile, overweight as BMI >85th, but less than 95th.  Normal as < 85th percentile.
  • Assessments were made at baseline and after 1 year of follow-up.
  • At baseline 12.9% were overweight, 9.7% were obese, and 8.8% had depressed mood.
  • Baseline depression was not correlated with baseline obesity.
  • Among the 9.7% who were obese at follow-up, 79.6% were obese at baseline, 18.6% were overweight, and 1.8% were normal weight at baseline.
  • Having depressed mood at baseline independently predicted obesity at follow-up among those not obese at baseline (odds ratio 2.05; 95% confidence interval 1.04, 4.06).
  • Baseline obesity did not predict follow-up depression.
  • Similar to previous study multiple confounding variables were controlled for: age, race, gender, parental obesity, # of parents at home, and socioeconomic status.
  • Conclusion – Adolescent depression leads to adolescent obesity


Study #3

  • Richardson (2003)
  • Used data from a longitudinal study of a birth cohort between April 1, 1972 and March 31, 1973, in Dunedin, New Zealand (N=1037).
  • The data included regular diagnostic mental health interviews and ht/wt measurements throughout childhood and adolescence.
  • Logistic regression analysis was performed to assess the relationship between major depression in early or late adolescence and the risk for obesity at 26 yrs of age.
  • Results: Major Depression occurred in 7% of cohort during early adolescence (11, 13, and 15 yrs of age) and and 27% during late adolescence (18 and 21 yrs of age). At 26 yrs of age, 12% were obese.
  • After statistical analysis – depressed late adolescence girls were at greater than two fold increased risk for obesity in adulthood compared to non-obese female peers (RR 2.32, 95% confidence interval 1.29-3.83).
  • A dose-response relationship between the number of episodes of depression and risk for adult obesity was also found in late adolescent girls.
  • Difference between previous studies in gender – depressed adolescent boys show no increase in adult obesity.  Also, depression in early adolescent females does not led to an increase in adult obesity.
  • Results of this study may be attributable to classifying adolescents into different age groups.  Also, a specific Depression Scale was not used.



  • The results of the three studies indicate that depression in childhood and adolescence may lead to adolescence or adult obesity
  • Both obesity and depression are increasing worldwide for reasons that are unknown
  • Obesity is thought to be a biologically heterogeneous disorder
  • It is possible that for a subgroup of obese patients that depression is an important risk factor
  • These patients may eat large meals to counteract low serotonin levels.  SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) may be important in these patients not only to improve their depressive symptoms, but also to maintain their weight … more studies are needed.
  • In addition to depression, other social factors need to be addressed that could lead to depression – declining levels of physical activity, increasing social isolation, and increasing socioeconomic inequality.
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