Maternal depression and stress response: the effect on offspring in emerging adulthood

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Dysregulated cortisol has been linked to a variety of adverse physical and psychological consequences. Stressors in the childhood family environment can influence cortisol activity throughout development. For example, research has

Dysregulated cortisol has been linked to a variety of adverse physical and psychological consequences. Stressors in the childhood family environment can influence cortisol activity throughout development. For example, research has shown that both infants and children of depressed mothers exhibit altered levels of cortisol compared to infants and children of non-depressed mothers. It is unclear, however, whether exposure to maternal depression in childhood and adolescence is related to cortisol activity at later stages of development. The current study examined the longitudinal relation between maternal depressive symptoms during late childhood (9-12 years old) and adolescence (15-19 years old) and cortisol activity in offspring in young adulthood (24- 28 years old) in a sample of 40 young adults and their mothers. Maternal depressive symptoms were prospectively assessed at four time points across the 15 year study. Cortisol samples were collected from young adult offspring at the final time point. Findings revealed that higher levels of maternal depressive symptoms during late childhood were associated with lower total cortisol output in young adulthood. Results suggest that attenuated cortisol levels, which put these young adults at risk for a variety of stress-related physical and psychological illnesses, may be a long-term consequence of exposure to maternal depression,. Depressive symptoms in mothers during their child's adolescence, however, did not relate to cortisol output. These findings suggest a sensitive period in late childhood during which the development of HPA activity may be susceptible to the environmental stressor of maternal depression.