Is Bipolar Disorder Genetic?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that is characterized by alternating extremes ofpositive moods (mania) and negative moods (depression). In many cases, shifts between extremes in mood are sufficiently quick and dramatic as to be disruptive to everyday life.

Bipolar disorder and heredity

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), approximately 2.8 percent of Americans over the age of 13 have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The causes of this disorder are not well understood. However, many researchers believe that family history does have an influence on a person’s chances ofdeveloping the condition, suggesting genetics can be a risk factor.

According to a review published in 2009, adults with one or more relatives exhibiting bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to develop the condition. Risk increases when a close relative has bipolar disorder. This means persons with a parent who has been diagnosed are more at risk for developing the condition than someone who has a distant cousin or great-aunt with bipolar disorder.

Between 60 and 80 percent of cases show strong indications that genetics are a causal factor for bipolar disorder. Experts believe that while genetics can place a person at greater risk for developing the condition, other factors can trigger it. This means that not everyone with a family history will develop bipolar disorder. In fact, most people with a close family member with bipolar disorder will not develop the condition.

Risk factors and triggers other than heredity

Heredity is the greatest risk factor for bipolar disorder, but it is not the only one. Other risk factors include brain damage, developmental disabilities, traumatic events and prolonged exposure to high-stress environments.

Neurological Factors. Persons with bipolar disorder often show subtle differences in brain activity and brain size compared to others. Traumatic head injuries, concussions, drug or alcohol use, and developmental disabilities increase a person’s risk ofdeveloping the disorder.

Environmental Factors. Frequently, it is a stressful or traumatic event that triggers the onset ofbipolar disorder. The trigger event could be related to personal life, work, school or events in the home. Sudden major life changes such as a physical injury or the death of a loved one are significant stressors for anyone and can trigger the onset of bipolar disorder.

Some experts suspect that episodes ofbipolar disorder can be triggered by seasonal factors. The most common seasonal trigger is the transition fromwinter to spring. Experts believe the reason that this particular seasonal change tends to trigger the disorder is due to the relatively rapid increase in daylight hours. The longer duration ofdaylight hours stimulates the pineal gland and can influence the development of mania or depression. At present, there is inadequate evidence to prove seasonal changes can trigger an episode, but being aware of the possible risk may help some who suffer fromthe condition.

Individuals who have been diagnosed with the condition and those who are believed to be at risk for developing bipolar disorder are strongly advised to carefully manage day-to-day stress. Seeking counseling is a good way to learn stress management techniques that may lower the risk of triggering the onset of the condition or an episode of mania or depression.

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