Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a challenging psychiatric condition. Formerly called manic depression, this chronic and potentially debilitating disorder is known for causing severe swings in mood and energy levels. People who suffer from bipolar I disorder, which is the most severe form of the disorder, don’t have the normal ups and downs most people experience in life. Their ups are really up, consisting of elated, giddy, and super-energetic manic episodes lasting for a week or longer. Their downs are often really down, comprised of hopeless, helpless, and even paralyzing bouts of major depression.

The exact cause of bipolar disorder remains a mystery. Most experts agree that there is likely no single cause that triggers the development of this chronic disorder. Rather, it’s most likely caused by a host of factors working together to contribute to its development.

Unfortunately, anyone can develop bipolar disorder. However, as with most disorders, some individuals have a greater risk than most due to certain factors. The most likely risk factors include the following:


In some cases, there seems a clear genetic link. Research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that not only can bipolar disorder run in a family, those family members are also more likely to share certain additional traits that include:

  • The age of the first manic episode
  • Number/frequency of episodes
  • Co-occurring obsessive-compulsive (OCD) disorder [1]

Children with relatives who have other psychiatric conditions, like anxiety disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are at higher risk for developing bipolar, according to a recent study. In fact, children in high-risk families had 23% higher prevalence of a major affective condition, like bipolar disorder, than families considered mentally healthy [2].

Research also suggests that people with a family history of other conditions, like autism and schizophrenia, have a higher risk of developing bipolar disorder. While the medical geneticists who led the study have yet to pinpoint the exact nature of the link, they believe the disorders share at least some underlying risk factors [3].


This medical condition affects both men and women, although in somewhat different ways. Men, for example, are more likely to suffer from early-onset bipolar disorder, often considered a more debilitating form of the condition. Women have higher rates of the rapid cycling variety, which includes four or more manic or depressive episodes each year [4].

Abnormal brain structure

Bipolar disorder may also have some roots in abnormalities within the brain. A review of 30 scientific studies discovered that people in the early stages of the disorder showed changes in specific brain structures, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and the subgenual prefrontal cortex. In three of four of the studies, patients with a reduction in the subgenual prefrontal cortex also had a family history of bipolar disorder [5].


From the anxiety of losing a job to the trauma of living through an accident, stress – particular4ly severe or chronic stress – is one environmental factor that increases the risk of developing bipolar disorder. In fact, it’s common for a person to receive an initial diagnosis of the condition in the aftermath of a stressful or traumatic event. Events that may act as triggers include:

  • Relationship issues with spouses, partners, or significant others
  • Major life shifts, such as leaving for college or the loss of a spouse
  • Family strife
  • Acquiring a significant responsibility, like caring for an aging parent or a child with a serious illness
  • Extended periods of stress, such as waiting for a deployed spouse to return home safely
  • Experiencing serious or prolonged trauma during childhood

Drug or alcohol abuse

It’s not uncommon for a person with bipolar disorder to also struggle with alcoholism. Researchers continue to search for a solid link in the relationship between alcohol and the mental disorder. Some theorize that people with bipolar disorder gravitate toward alcohol to self-medicate. Other researchers suspect that alcohol use affects the brain in the same way as bipolar disorder. Even as researchers look to pinpoint the link, one thing is clear: alcohol use and bipolar symptoms are connected [6].


Many people with bipolar disorder are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 30. It’s important to note that bipolar disorder can develop at any age. In seniors, the condition is sometimes diagnosed after a serious illness or a stroke. Children can also be affected, with some being diagnosed as young as 6 years old.

Your own age may not be the only factor that raises the risk of developing bipolar disorder. At least one large study suggests that your father’s age at your conception may play a role as well. Swedish researchers found that children who were fathered by men age 55 and older were at higher risk for bipolar disorder, especially the early-onset form, than those with younger fathers [7].

Tips to Lower Your Risk

A risk factor is simply something that increases the chance you’ll develop a particular illness or disorder. That being said, having one or more risk factors is not necessarily a guarantee that you’ll develop the condition. If you have one or more risk factors for bipolar disorder, you can take action to lower the chance you’ll develop it.

Talk with your primary care physician. Discuss your concerns so your doctor can assess your risk level and determine if you’re exhibiting symptoms. If you’re concerned that a child in your care might be at risk for developing the disorder, make time to express your concerns to a pediatrician or mental health specialist. He or she will assess the situation as well as help you learn the warning signs of the disorder, which are sometimes different in children than in adults.

Manage stress levels. While we all experience anxiety, pressure, and strain, those living with a higher risk of bipolar disorder should take special care to actively reduce stress in their lives. Use practical techniques that are easy to implement when anxiety begins to take hold. Learn how to breathe for relaxation, start taking regular yoga classes, or keep a journal where you can privately express your thoughts, emotions, and fears.

Consider therapy. You don’t need to be diagnosed with a mental health condition to benefit from working with a therapist. Talk therapy with a trained professional can help you work through emotions and fears. The therapist can assist you in developing practical coping strategies to use to guide yourself through stressful periods.

Avoid the use of alcohol and other mood-altering substances. The link between alcohol and bipolar disorder is strong enough that people with a higher risk for the condition should avoid using it.

Bipolar disorder is a serious psychiatric condition that can significantly impair your ability to function. If left untreated, the consequences can be extreme. If you live with one or more risk factors, you owe it to yourself to learn more about the disorder and take proactive measures to reduce stress and maintain good mental health.

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