Prenatal and perinatal factors and risk of eating disorders

Psychol Med. 2021 Apr;51(5):870-880. doi: 10.1017/S0033291719003945. Epub 2020 Jan 8.

Abstract

Background: Among the most disabling and fatal psychiatric illnesses, eating disorders (EDs) often manifest early in life, which encourages investigations into in utero and perinatal environmental risk factors. The objective of this study was to determine whether complications during pregnancy and birth and perinatal conditions are associated with later eating disorder risk in offspring and whether these associations are unique to EDs.

Methods: All individuals born in Denmark to Danish-born parents 1989-2010 were included in the study and followed from their 6th birthday until the end of 2016. Exposure to factors related to pregnancy, birth, and perinatal conditions was determined using national registers, as were hospital-based diagnoses of anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa, and eating disorder not otherwise specified during follow-up. For comparison, diagnoses of depressive, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders were also included. Cox regression was used to compare hazards of psychiatric disorders in exposed and unexposed individuals.

Results: 1 167 043 individuals were included in the analysis. We found that similar to the comparison disorders, prematurity was associated with increased eating disorder risk. Conversely, patterns of increasing risks of EDs, especially in AN, with increasing parental ages differed from the more U-shaped patterns observed for depressive and anxiety disorders.

Conclusions: Our results suggest that pregnancy and early life are vulnerable developmental periods when exposures may influence offspring mental health, including eating disorder risk, later in life. The results suggest that some events pose more global transdiagnostic risk whereas other patterns, such as increasing parental ages, appear more specific to EDs.

Keywords: Anorexia nervosa; anxiety disorder; bulimia nervosa; depressive disorders; eating disorder not otherwise specified; eating disorders; epidemiology; obsessive-compulsive disorder; perinatal risk factors; prenatal risk factors.