Bipolar Disorder Risk Factors

Written by Jaime Herndon | Published on August 12, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 12, 2014

Learn about the risk factors for bipolar disorder, including those you can control and those out of your reach.

Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder causes a range of symptoms that can be distressing and disruptive to your life. It was formerly known as manic-depressive illness. It’s a chronic condition that affects the brain causing highs and lows in mood, behavior, energy, and activity. The manic highs and depressive lows give the condition its name.  

There’s no cure, but with medication and treatment, people with the disorder can thrive. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates there are more than 10 million Americans living with the condition. There is no known cause of bipolar disorder but there are certain risk factors

What Population is Most At Risk?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly half of all people with the disorder are diagnosed by the age of 25. Men and women are affected equally by the disorder. Symptoms usually occur in older teenagers or young adults, but it can also develop at older ages.

What Are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?

Symptoms of bipolar disorder include high moods (mania) and low moods (depression) that can vary in intensity and length. Sometimes psychosis can be involved. This is when the person sees or hears things that are not there, or has delusions of grandeur (i.e., thinking they are the President).

Symptoms of mania include:

  • rapid speech
  • lack of concentration
  • high sex drive
  • decreased need for sleep yet increased energy
  • increase in impulsivity
  • drug or alcohol abuse

Symptoms of depression include:

  • loss of energy
  • feeling hopeless
  • trouble concentrating
  • irritability
  • trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much
  • appetite changes
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or attempting suicide

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

No one single risk factor means you will develop bipolar disorder. Scientists believe that multiple risk factors work together to trigger the illness. More research needs to be done to discover the specific risk factors and causes of bipolar disorder.


Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. Children with a parent or sibling with the disorder have a higher chance of developing it than those without affected family members.

Identical twins don’t have the same risk of developing the illness. It’s likely that genes and environment work together in developing the disorder.


Sometimes a stressful event like a loss or a medical problem can trigger a person’s bipolar disorder. This can cause them to experience a manic or depressive episode.

Drug abuse might trigger bipolar disorder. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 60 percent of individuals with the illness have dependence issues on either drugs or alcohol. People with seasonal depression or anxiety disorders may also be at risk for developing bipolar disorder.

Brain Structure

Scans like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission technology (PET) scans provide pictures of the brain. Certain findings on these scans have been associated with bipolar disorder. More research is needed to see how these findings specifically impact bipolar disorder and what this means for treatment and diagnosis.

According to the NIMH, brain development patterns in children have been linked to unstable moods and mental disorders.

Can Risk Factors Be Avoided?

While there isn’t a single cause of bipolar disorder, there are certain factors that may increase your risk. If your family has a history of bipolar disorder, pay attention to any symptoms you may have and discuss them with your doctor. If you are experiencing extreme stress and think that it may link to bipolar disorder, consult your doctor.

More research is needed to pinpoint a cause of the disorder. Pay attention to these factors for a better understanding of your risk.

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