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Heredity's links to disorders

By Tom Davis

By the time you read this, I'll be a father again.

For the third time.

Don't worry. I'll be fine.

Diapers, bottles, pacifiers -- by now they're all routine.Waking up at 2 a.m.? Please. If anything, college trained me for those long,sleepless nights.

The only thing I fear is the future. I fear for my children.I think of mental illness, and how it's as much a part of my family as hairthat's prematurely gray.

It's an issue that many people struggle with: Should theybring children who are at-risk into a world that's still largely ignorant ofthe brain's complexities?

Such feelings are natural, professionals say. But expectingparents shouldn't jump to the conclusion that mental illness is theirchildren's destiny.

Studies, in fact, vary on how much of an impact heredity hason mental health.

Researchers believe that at least 80 percent of autism cases-- a neuropsychiatric disorder that impairs the waypeople relate to others -- is because of hereditary factors, according to theNational Institute of Mental Health.

The American Psychological Association, however, was unableto provide any studies from its database showing heredity's impact on bipolardisorder, schizophrenia and other illnesses.

Researchers believe there is a link between mental illnessand family history. But the genetic evidence, at this point, is not as advancedas it is with breast cancer and autism.

"Researchers are confident that autism is geneticallyrelated," said Jennifer Loukissas, a spokeswomanfor National Institute of Mental Health. "But with other disorders, theremay be other factors."

Professionals debate whether environment has a biggerinfluence on a child whose parents suffer from bipolar disorder andschizophrenia. Or genetics and environment may have a shared impact.

Children mimic the habits of their parents -- particularlyobsessive-compulsive traits like washing hands constantly, or repeatingstatements over and over, mental health professionals say.

Frank J. Sileo, a Ridgewood psychologist who cares for children andparents, said he always asks his patients if they have a family history ofmental illness. He believes there is a link, even if it's not genetic.

If a person grows up in an abusive household, it's possiblethey feel the pain of that experience for the rest of their lives. It mayevolve into depression or other mental disorders later on, Sileosaid.

Those symptoms may become pronounced once the children beginto deal with the pressures of teenage and adult life: paying bills, keepingslim and other peer-related anxieties.

"They may have a greater risk of developing somethinglater on," Sileo said. "Usually, it's inthe college-age range when things may emerge."

I grew up with a mother who suffered fromobsessive-compulsive disorder. She washed her hands constantly, and warned meto avoid contact with germs or people who suffered from contagious diseases.

She also worried about what she ate. She rarely finished herdinner plate, and complained that it made her sick. She'd go on about it for 15minutes, and turn it into the prevailing dinner-table conversation topic.

The whole time, I'd listen to her, making mental notes ofwhat she was saying. By the time I was in college, food made me feel sick, too.

So far, there's no evidence that my children will sufferfrom obsessive-compulsive disorder, as my mother, grandfather andgreat-grandfather did. Or bulimia, which affected me incollege.

But in my house, we try to provide a loving and nurturingatmosphere that's free of fear.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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