The offspring of depressed parents have been found to show elevated basal levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Whether heightened cortisol stress reactivity is also present in this group has yet to be clearly demonstrated. We tested whether postnatal maternal depression predicts subsequent increases in offspring biological sensitivity to social stress, as indexed by elevated cortisol reactivity.
Participants (mean age 22.4-years) derived from a 22-year prospective longitudinal study of the offspring of mothers who had postnatal depression (PND group; n = 38) and a control group (n = 38). Salivary cortisol response to a social-evaluative threat (Trier Social Stress Test) was measured.
Hierarchical linear modelling indicated that PND group offspring showed greater cortisol reactivity to the stress test than control group participants. Group differences were not explained by offspring depressive or anxiety symptoms, experiences of negative life events, elevated basal cortisol at age 13-years, subsequent exposure to maternal depression, or other key covariates.
The findings indicate that the presence of early maternal depression can predict offspring biological sensitivity to social stress in adulthood, with potential implications for broader functioning.