Low attention control in early adolescence is related to a genetic risk factor for four different anxiety disorders. Young teens who suffer from anxiety are also more vulnerable to additional problems like depression, drug dependence, suicidal behavior and educational underachievement.
The National Institutes of Mental Health reports that 8 per cent of teens ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder, with anxiety-related problems often peaking during this time. Most adults diagnosed with anxiety or mood disorders also report the presence of symptoms earlier in their lives.
“Appropriate and earlier intervention could really assist these patients and improve their outlooks on the long-term,” said Jeffrey Gagne, UTA assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study.
A visible marker like low attention control, which usually appears and can be identified before anxiety, could improve the treatment of these disorders.
The researchers used a combination of self-ratings and mother ratings to assess scores for obsessive, social, separation and generalized anxiety symptoms in 446 twin pairs with a mean age of 13.6 years, all enrolled in the Wisconsin Twin Project.
They then explored the extent to which links between low levels of attention and anxiety symptoms are genetically and environmentally mediated in adolescence.
Non-shared environmental influences were significant across attention control and all anxiety variables. Genetic correlations ranged from 36 to 47 per cent, a pattern that suggests that low attention can be considered a phenotypic and genetic risk factor for anxiety.
Risk level varied, however, depending on the specific type of disorder, with the highest correlations being for generalized and separation anxieties, and the lowest for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Gagne and UTA graduate student Catherine Spann recently published this research as “The Shared Etiology of Attentional Control and Anxiety: An Adolescent Twin Study” in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.