Women Who Suffer from Infertility More Likely to Become Alcoholics, Study Says

A new study hints at the devastating psychological effects of infertility: Women who want to become mothers but are unable to bear children are more than twice as likely to end up hospitalized for alcoholism, and 47 percent more likely to require medical treatment for schizophrenia.

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The effects of infertility on a woman's mental well-being may be even more far-reaching, the study's author, Dr. Birgitte Baldur-Felskov, an epidemiologist at the Danish Cancer Society Research Centre, noted.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg," she told The Telegraph. "We were only able to analyze the risk of severe psychiatric disorders resulting in hospitalization." Other women may have been treated for psychiatric issues on an out-patient basis, or even not treated at all, she pointed out.

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The study has led British fertility specialists to call infertility a disease and urge the government to consider increasing public funding for in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

"I was aware that women who were unable to have children were not happy and had difficulty with their ongoing lives, but these results are really shocking," Dr. Allan Pacey, chairman of the British Fertility Society, told The Telegraph. "I think it illustrates my personal frustration with all those people who say infertility isn't a disease and it shouldn't be funded because having a baby is a lifestyle choice."

Baldur-Felskov and her colleagues analyzed data from 98,737 Danish women who had been diagnosed with fertility problems between 1973 and 2008, cross-referencing the patients with Denmark's population-based Danish Psychiatric Central Registry. The results, presented today at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Istanbul, Turkey, included information on hospitalizations for psychiatric issues including alcohol abuse, schizophrenia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and other forms of what the registry calls "mental disorders."

After an average of 12.6 years, 54 percent of the patients studied did end up having at least one baby. Nearly 5,000 of the women in the study were hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder of some kind after finding out that they were infertile -- the most common diagnoses were "anxiety, adjustment, and obsessive compulsive disorders" and "affective disorders including depression" -- and the hospitalization rates were significantly higher among women who wanted to have a child but were never able to carry one to term.

"Our study showed that women who remained childless after fertility evaluation had an 18 percent higher risk of all mental disorders than the women who did have at least one baby," Baldur-Felskov said. "These higher risks were evident in alcohol and substance abuse, schizophrenia and eating disorders, although appeared lower in affective disorders including depression."

Oddly, the most common diagnosis overall -- "anxiety, adjustment, and obsessive compulsive disorders" -- was not affected by fertility status, and the risk of depression actually dropped by 10 percent among those who failed to conceive. But the risk for alcohol or substance abuse skyrocketed by 103 percent, schizophrenia by 47 percent, eating disorders by 47 percent, and the risk of "other mental disorders" by 43 percent.

"The results suggest that failure to succeed after presenting for fertility investigation may be an important risk modifier for psychiatric disorders," she said. "This adds an important component to the counseling of women being investigated and treated for infertility. Specialists and other healthcare personnel working with infertile patients should also be sensitive to the potential for psychiatric disorders among this patient group."

In Denmark, all citizens have a personal identification number which can be used to track them through every medical database in the country.

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