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Long-term insomnia symptoms may increase the risk of mental health disorders

Children who have a hard time sleeping may be at a greater risk of developing anxiety as adults

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Photo (c) Pollyana Ventura - Getty Images
Experts have identified a clear link between poor sleep and mental health struggles, both for consumers young and old

Now, researchers from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine explored how insomnia that starts in childhood and lasts through adolescence and adulthood impacts mental health. The team learned that persistent insomnia can increase the likelihood of anxiety and mood disorders. 

“We found that about 40% of children do not outgrow their insomnia symptoms in the transition to adolescence and are at risk of developing mental health disorders later on during early adulthood,” said researcher Julio Fernandez-Mendoza. 

Persistent symptoms led to worse outcomes

The researchers analyzed data from 700 children enrolled in the Penn State Child Cohort. At the first check-in, the children’s parents reported on their insomnia-related symptoms. The researchers then followed up as late as 15 years later, at which point the participants detailed their own sleep habits and answered questions about their mental health

Ultimately, participants that experienced insomnia-related symptoms from childhood through adolescence or adulthood were more likely to struggle with their mental health. Those whose insomnia symptoms tapered off as they grew up experienced no heightened risk of anxiety, whereas those who developed insomnia as the study progressed were nearly two times as likely to struggle with internalized disorders, such as depression and other emotional and behavioral disorders. 

Participants with persistent insomnia symptoms that spanned from childhood through adulthood were nearly three times as likely to develop an anxiety or mood disorder. 

Treatments for insomnia are needed

In this study, nearly 40% of the participants never outgrew their insomnia symptoms. In thinking about how that impacts mental health, these findings highlight the need for more comprehensive solutions for insomnia and other sleep-related issues. 

“These new findings further indicate that early sleep interventions are warranted to prevent future mental health problems, as children whose insomnia symptoms improved over time were not at an increased risk of having a mood or anxiety disorder as young adults,” Fernandez-Mendoza said. 

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