Young adults who were conceived through in-vitro fertilization are doing as well as the average young American as far as physical health, though their rates of certain psychological problems appear elevated, a new study finds.
The study, published in the journal of the Fertility and Sterility, is a follow-up of the first generation of U.S. children conceived via IVF. All were born between 1981 and 1990 through the IVF program at Eastern Virginia Medical School, where the first IVF baby in the U.S. was born, in 1981.
According to Dr. Sergio Oehninger and his colleagues at the university, there are “lingering questions” about the potential health effects of IVF on children.
A body of research suggests that even the earliest stages of embryonic development may affect people’s risks of various chronic health conditions later in life. Because those earliest stages are different for children conceived through IVF, that could, in theory, result in differences in disease risks.
In addition, IVF births are often multiples, which means greater odds of preterm delivery and low birth weight, which can negatively affect children’s long-term development.
But in their study, Oehninger and his colleagues found that young adults born via IVF were generally “healthy and well adjusted.” However, their rates of certain psychological conditions, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and binge-drinking, were elevated.
Among the 173 18- to 26-year-olds they surveyed, two-thirds said they had ever been diagnosed with a physical or psychological health problem. The most common were psychiatric conditions, vision problems and asthma or allergies.
The percentage of study participants who said they had ever been diagnosed with ADHD was higher than the norm - 27 percent, compared with an estimated prevalence of ADHD among U.S. children of 3 to 5 percent.
The rate of depression also appeared elevated, with almost 16 percent saying they had ever been diagnosed with the disorder. By comparison, the expected lifetime prevalence of depression up to age 25 is just under 13 percent, according to Oehninger’s team.
On the other hand, the researchers found, the IVF group was similar to, and sometimes doing better, than the typical young American when it came to risk factors for chronic physical diseases.
They were, for example, less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise than other U.S. adults their age, based on data from a large government health survey conducted between 1999 and 2004.
Fourteen percent of the IVF group said they currently smoked, versus 39 percent of young adults in the government study. And 92 percent said they got at least some moderate exercise, compared with 61 percent of the national sample.
One risk factor that was more common in the IVF group was binge-drinking, at least among women. Nearly 55 percent of young women in the IVF group reported bingeing in the past year, compared with 36 percent of young U.S. women generally. The researchers defined binge-drinking as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks within a two-hour period.
The study cannot pinpoint the reasons for the higher rates of ADHD, depression and binge-drinking, but they are likely to be complex, according to Oehninger and his colleagues.
One factor, they speculate, could be the heightened stress levels that past studies have found among parents undergoing IVF; some may later be “overprotective” of their children, which could affect their social and emotional development.
The researchers also point to some important limitations of their study. One is the fact that they attempted to survey more than 500 young adults born through their IVF program, but less than one-third ultimately responded. This raises the possibility that only those in the best health participated in the study.
Studies should continue to follow the well-being of children and adults conceived through IVF, Oehninger’s team writes - and that, the researchers add, should include an investigation of the potential reasons for any health effects.
SOURCE: Fertility and Sterility, online February 17, 2010.