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Why some children with poor language also have poor mental health

For developing children, some words, sounds, and sentences can be difficult, but at certain milestones, if a child is still struggling, it may be due to a language or speech disorder. 

In a new study led by the University of York, researchers examined a potential link between poor language and poor mental health. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, language and speech problems can show up alongside emotional or behavioral disorders. 

For some children, mental health and language are closely linked. In children with developmental language disorder (DLD), for example, mental health problems were thought to be caused by struggling with the disorder. 

However, the researchers discovered underlying genetic factors that explain why children with DLD are more likely to have poor mental health. 

The study, published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, is the first of its kind to identify a genetic link between mental health and language. 

For the study, the researchers reviewed genetic data, questionnaires, and assessments on language ability from over 5,000 children that were enrolled in the Children of the 90s longitudinal study. 

The researchers also investigated genetic variants in six genes that play a role in language development in children. Polygenic scoring was used to see if variants that impact language development also influence mental health. 

Almost half of the variants studied correlated with both language and poor mental health. 

The researchers say that these findings need to be confirmed and that future studies should explore more genetic variants that may play a role in language and mental health. 

However, the results show a potential genetic link that helps explain why children with language disorders have poor mental health. 

“This study provides very preliminary evidence that children with language disorders, such as developmental language disorder (DLD), may experience poor mental health due to shared biological mechanisms,” said Dr. Umar Toseeb, the lead author of the study. “This means that children with DLD may have poor mental health because the genes that are responsible for building neural systems responsible for language might also be responsible for mental health.”

The identification of a potential genetic link could help implement preventive mental health care. 

“If our findings are confirmed in future work, it could mean that, rather than wait for children with developmental language disorder to show symptoms of poor mental health before intervening, mental health support is put in place as soon as language difficulties become apparent, as a preventative measure,” said Toseeb. 

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer 

Image Credit: Shutterstock/fizkes

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