Early childhood malnutrition predicts depressive symptoms at ages 11-17

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2010 Jul;51(7):789-98. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02208.x. Epub 2010 Mar 10.


Background: We examined the prevalence of depressive symptoms in Barbadian youth with histories of infantile malnutrition and in a healthy comparison group and the extent to which the effect of malnutrition was mediated/moderated by maternal depression.

Methods: Depressive symptoms were assessed using a 20-item scale administered to youths (11-17 years of age) who had experienced an episode of protein-energy malnutrition (marasmus or kwashiorkor) during the first year of life and in a comparison group of healthy youths without a history of malnutrition. Their mothers completed the same questionnaire on the same test on three occasions when their children were 5-17 years of age at 2-5-year intervals.

Results: The prevalence of depressive symptoms was elevated among previously malnourished youth relative to healthy comparison children (p < .001). When youth depression scores were subjected to a longitudinal multiple regression analysis, adjusting for the effect of maternal depressive symptoms, significant effects due to the history of early childhood malnutrition remained and were not discernibly attenuated from an unadjusted analysis. We also found significant independent effects of maternal depressive symptoms on youth depressive symptoms.

Conclusion: Early childhood malnutrition contributed independently to depressive symptoms in youths who experienced a significant episode of malnutrition in the first year of life. This relationship was not mediated or moderated by the effects of maternal depression. Whether the later vulnerability to depression is a direct effect of the episode of malnutrition and related conditions early in life or whether it is mediated by the more proximal neurobehavioral effects of the malnutrition remains to be determined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Barbados
  • Black People / psychology*
  • Child
  • Child of Impaired Parents / psychology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mothers / psychology
  • Personality Inventory / statistics & numerical data
  • Protein-Energy Malnutrition / diagnosis
  • Protein-Energy Malnutrition / epidemiology*
  • Protein-Energy Malnutrition / psychology*
  • Psychometrics
  • Risk Factors
  • White People / psychology*