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The Weeds: examining some exciting Swedish administrative data

How can parents reduce the likelihood of having children who struggle with depression and ADHD?

One new research paper suggests a possible way forward. "Family Ruptures, Stress, and the Mental Health of the Next Generation," by Petra Persson and Maya Rossin-Slater, uses a rich set of Swedish administrative data to find that mothers who have close relatives die during pregnancy are more likely to have children who then use anti-anxiety medicine later in life.

The suggestion, of course, isn't that expectant mothers can stop their relatives from dying. Instead, the paper has a broader conclusion: that prenatal exposure to stress can have effects that last decades after birth. On the latest episode of The Weeds, Vox's Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matt Yglesias work through that and some of the other possible implications for child rearing from the researchers' conclusion.

Here's Matt giving an introduction to the study:

People have known for a long time that the stress hormone cortisol has a stress impact on young kids, so it seems like it also should have an impact in utero, on pregnant women. But it's hard to design methodologically rigorous studies involving pregnant women — you can't inject them with stress hormones, and you can't say, "Let's have something awful happen to a random set of pregnant women and see how that turns out."

So they use a rich set of Swedish administrative data. They look at pregnant women who have had relatives die; not just parents but parents and kids and brothers and sisters, so they can construct a relatedness variable of the dead person, and then they can do a discontinuity design and look at kids whose moms had a relative die shortly after the baby was born versus shortly before, so you're really isolating the effect of the pre-birth environment. They also have data in Sweden on which prescriptions drugs they are taking, and match them up.

They show that, in least at Sweden, if a relative of your mother's died while she was pregnant with you, you are more likely to take anti-ADHD and anti-depression later in life and that the closeness between your mother and the dead relative is related to the likelihood you have here.

It's one that obviously has no policy implications: We knew it was bad for people to die. But the implication is that other kinds of stressful situations, including the general situations of living or poverty or having a shitty job, are going to have similar effects. The death of a relative happens to be something you can study in a well-quantified way, but the general phenomenon of stress and life being connected to later life outcomes is kind of fascinating.

Show notes:

  • Ezra's story on how technology is — and isn't — changing the way we work
  • Larry Summers's speech on the future of work
  • "Does the United States have a productivity slowdown or a measurement problem?" a critical Brookings paper co-authored by David M. Byrne, of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System; John G. Fernald, of the federal reserve bank of San Francisco; and Marshall B. Reinsdorf, of the International Monetary Fund
  • Andrew Prokop's story on the theory of Bernie Sanders's political revolution
  • Was the system rigged against Sanders? One generous interpretation.
  • Ezra's piece on why it matters that Sanders couldn't play the inside game
  • Sanders's fight with Planned Parenthood, by Emily Crockett

Editor's Note: Retraction Watch has published an article doubting the study's originality, a question not addressed in The Weeds podcast episode.