Associations of parental depression during adolescence with cognitive development in later life in China: A population-based cohort study
January 11, 2021
Citation: PLoS Med. 2021 Jan; 18(1): e1003464

BACKGROUND Prior research has underscored negative impacts of perinatal parental depression on offspring cognitive performance in early childhood. However, little is known about the effects of parental depression during adolescence on offspring cognitive development.
METHODS AND FINDINGS This study used longitudinal data from the nationally representative China Family Panel Studies (CFPS). The sample included 2,281 adolescents aged 10-15 years (the median age was 13 years with an interquartile range between 11 and 14 years) in 2012 when their parents were surveyed for depression symptoms with the 20-item Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D). The sample was approximately balanced by sex, with 1,088 females (47.7%). We examined the associations of parental depression in 2012 with offspring cognitive performance (measured by mathematics, vocabulary, immediate word recall, delayed word recall, and number series tests) in subsequent years (i.e., 2014, 2016, and 2018) using linear regression models, adjusting for various offspring (i.e., age, sex, and birth order), parent (i.e., parents' education level, age, whether living with the offspring, and employment status), and household characteristics (i.e., place of residence, household income, and the number of offspring). We found parental depression during adolescence to be significantly associated with worse cognitive performance in subsequent years, in both crude and adjusted models. For example, in the crude models, adolescents whose mothers had depression symptoms in 2012 scored 1.0 point lower (95% confidence interval [CI]: -1.2 to -0.8, p<0.001) in mathematics in 2014 compared to those whose mothers did not have depression symptoms; after covariate adjustment, this difference marginally reduced to 0.8 points (95% CI: -1.0 to -0.5, p<0.001); the associations remained robust after further adjusting for offspring earlier cognitive ability in toddlerhood (-1.2, 95% CI: -1.6, -0.9, p<0.001), offspring cognitive ability in 2012 (-0.6, 95% CI: -0.8, -0.3, p<0.001), offspring depression status (-0.7, 95% CI: -1.0, -0.5, p<0.001), and parents' cognitive ability (-0.8, 95% CI: -1.2, -0.3, p<0.001). In line with the neuroplasticity theory, we observed stronger associations between maternal depression and mathematical/vocabulary scores among the younger adolescents (i.e., 10-11 years) than the older ones (i.e., 12-15 years). For example, the association between maternal depression and 2014 vocabulary scores was estimated to be -2.1 (95% CI: -2.6, -1.6, p<0.001) in those aged 10-11 years, compared to -1.2 (95% CI: -1.6, -0.8, p<0.001) in those aged 12-15 years with a difference of 0.9 (95% CI: 0.2, 1.6, p = 0.010). We also observed a stronger association of greater depression severity with worse mathematical scores. The primary limitations of this study were the relatively high attrition rate and residual confounding.
CONCLUSIONS In this study, we observed that parental depression during adolescence was associated with adverse offspring cognitive development assessed up to 6 years later. These findings highlight the intergenerational association between depression in parents and cognitive development across the early life course into adolescence.