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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Teaching About Bipolar Women

Q. There is a Criminal Justice teacher at a community college where I live who is teaching his students that 50% of women who go through menopause develop bipolar disorder, as a result. He claims that there are studies that back this up. He is also claiming that obesity and/or eating certain foods can cause bipolar disorder. I think these claims sound absolutely ridiculous and I am convinced that he is giving his student's information that is not true. What is your opinion about these claims?

A. These claims, as you have stated them, are without foundation, to the best of my knowledge. Bipolar disorder has a lifetime prevalence of about 2-5% in the U.S. Clearly, if half of all women who went through menopause developed bipolar disorder as a result, the lifetime prevalence of bipolar disorder would be much higher!

Actually, the relationship between reproductive events and bipolar disorder has not been very well studied; for a review, see Freeman et al, J Clin Psychiatry 2002 Apr;63(4):284-7. The average age of onset for bipolar disorder is about 21 years of age; older data suggest that almost 90% of cases begin before the age of 50 (Angst et al, 1973). In a recent review of bipolar onset and the menopause, the author concluded that, "Exacerbations of a previous existing condition or late-onset bipolar illness may be associated with major stressors and life events such as that experienced during menopause." (Ishimaru-Tseng TV,Hawaii Med J 2000 Feb;59(2):51-3).

So, some women with pre-existing bipolar disorder may experience some worsening that coincides with peri-menopause (the few years before menopause) or the menopause itself--but this is a far cry from the claim the teacher is making!

Indeed, the notion that menopause is specifically associated with major mood disorders in women has been discredited by recent studies--though perimenopause seems to increase the risk of depression.

Similarly, there is no credible evidence I know of linking bipolar disorder either with obesity or certain foods. (That said, there is some evidence that a diet high in omega-3-fatty acids may possibly reduce the likelihood or severity of bipolar, and perhaps other, mood disorders). In short, I think your skepticism is justified! Please consider referring this individual to the above-cited references.

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May 2003

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