Context: A cardinal feature of the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder is the distinction between childhood- vs adolescent-onset subtypes. Whether such developmental subtypes exist in the population and have different prognoses should be rigorously tested to inform the DSM-V.
Objectives: To evaluate the epidemiological validity of childhood- vs adolescent-onset conduct problems in a prospective birth cohort, and to assess whether life-course-persistent conduct problems are associated with a greater adult health burden.
Design, setting, and participants: Our sample includes 526 male study members in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a 1-year birth cohort (April 1, 1972, through March 30, 1973). Developmental trajectories were defined using prospective ratings of conduct problems at 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, and 26 years of age.
Main outcome measures: Health burden was assessed as mental and physical health problems at 32 years of age measured via diagnostic interviews and physical examinations.
Results: We identified the following 4 developmental subtypes of conduct problems through general growth mixture modeling: (1) childhood-onset/life-course-persistent, (2) adolescent onset, (3) childhood limited, and (4) low. At 32 years of age, study members with the life-course-persistent subtype experienced the worst health burden. To a lesser extent, those with the adolescent-onset subtype also experienced health problems. A childhood-limited subtype not specified by DSM-IV was revealed; its adult health outcomes were within the range of the cohort norm.
Conclusions: Results support the epidemiological validity of the DSM-IV conduct disorder distinction based on age of onset but highlight the need to also consider long-term persistence to refine diagnosis. Preventing and treating conduct problems has the potential to reduce the adult health burden.