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Experiencing a serious infection during childhood may increase a the risk of developing mental illness later in life, according to the findings of a new study.
Danish researchers found that when children suffer severe infections, especially those requiring hospitalization and antibiotic treatment, they are more likely to suffering from depression, schizophrenia, or a number of other mental health disorders in the future.
In a study published this week in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers analyzed data from nearly 1.1 million people born in Denmark between 1995 and 2012, using the Danish National Patient Registry and the Danish National Prescription Registry.
According to the findings, severe infections requiring hospitalizations increased the risk of being diagnosed with any mental disorder by 84%. Those infections also increased a child’s risk of later needing psychotropic medication by 42%.
While less serious infections posed a lower risk, if a patient with a less serious infection was treated with antibiotics, their risk of mental disorder increased by 40%, researchers noted. They also faced an increased risk of needing psychiatric medication by 22%.
Children faced an increased risk for mental health disorders like schizophrenia spectrum disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality and behavior disorders, mental retardation, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder/conduct disorder and tic disorders.
The data highlights a connection between the body, the immune system, infections, inflammation, and the developing brain.
“Although the results cannot prove causality, these findings provide evidence for the involvement of infections and the immune system in the etiology of a wide range of mental disorders in children and adolescents,” study authors wrote.
There are some limiting factors to the study. The data was analyzed only up until the child reached age 18. There is no way to confirm if a patient was misdiagnosed during the time of the study.
The study was observational in nature; thus, researchers can’t conclude the infections caused the mental health disorders. Instead, the study shows a link between the two. Other factors may be at play, including genetics or socioeconomic status.
The study’s authors called for additional research into the potential causes. Some research has shown indicate someone with a mental disorder is more likely to experience higher rates of inflammation. Researchers speculate that it is possible the inflammation may be linked to the functioning of the immune system. Antibiotic treatments may also alter the gut micro biome and the balance of so-called “good bacteria” in the gut, which then impacts the brain.