Bipolar Disorder: Is There a Hereditary Connection?

Is Bipolar Disorder Hereditary?

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition. People with bipolar disorder alternate between periods of positive moods, called mania, and negative moods, called depression. These mood shifts can occur suddenly.

About 6 million people, or 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, have bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder and its causes aren’t well-understood. Researchers have noted a possible connection between family history and bipolar disorder. This suggests there may be a genetic component to the disorder. Keep reading to learn more about this condition.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder

The symptoms of bipolar mania include:

  • restless and impulsive behavior
  • poor judgement
  • an unrealistic perception of abilities
  • happiness, even to the point of euphoria
  • agitation
  • jumpiness
  • participating in risky behavior such as gambling, drunk driving, or impulsive sex
  • talking quickly
  • thinking quickly

The symptoms of bipolar depression are similar to the symptoms of regular depression. They include:

  • intense fatigue
  • prolonged, extreme sadness
  • talking slowly
  • issues with proper decision-making and focus
  • a poor appetite
  • hopelessness
  • thoughts of self-harm, including suicide
  • withdrawal from friends and families
  • a loss of interest in activities and hobbies

Causes of bipolar disorder

If one parent has bipolar disorder, you have a 10 percent chance that one child will develop it. If both parents have bipolar disorder, you have a 40 percent chance of developing the illness.

The causes of bipolar disorder aren’t well-understood. Some research suggests there may be a genetic connection.

One of the strongest risk factors for bipolar disorder is a family history of the disorder. This connection may be due to certain genes.

Adults who have relatives with the disorder have an average tenfold increase in risk of developing the disorder. Your risk further increases if the family member with the condition is a closer relative. That means if your parent has bipolar disorder, you have a greater chance of developing it than someone whose great aunt has the condition.

Genetic factors account for about 80 percent of the cause of bipolar disorder. That means that heredity isn’t the only cause of bipolar disorder. If you have a family history of the disorder, it doesn’t mean you’ll develop it. Most family members of someone with bipolar disorder will not develop the illness. This includes children.

What else influences bipolar disorder?

The following factors don’t necessarily cause bipolar disorder. However, they might trigger its onset, especially in at-risk people.


A stressful event often triggers the onset of bipolar disorder. People who have bipolar disorder typically find it helpful to control and diminish stress in their lives.


Seasonal factors may trigger the onset of bipolar disorder. The change from winter to spring, in particular, is a strong trigger. This is because the quick increase in the number of hours of bright sunshine during the day affects the pineal gland. This, in turn, might trigger depression and mania.


In certain cases, the period after giving birth can trigger a woman to develop bipolar disorder. This generally occurs in women who are biologically inclined to developing it in the first place. Pregnancy itself, however, isn’t usually the underlying cause of bipolar disorder.

Risk factors for bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder frequently develops when a person is between 16 to 25 years old. The average age of onset is 19. An estimated 50 percent of people develop it before age 25.

Bipolar disorder can start at any age, though. Some people experience their first symptoms as a child, and others first experience them later in their adult life. Getting a proper diagnosis can take years because people may mistake it for another disorder or may not report the symptoms.

As previously mentioned, people who have relatives with bipolar disorder are more likely to get it themselves. Your risk is higher if the relative is a parent. Additional risk factors include:

  • high stress due to work or personal reasons
  • sudden, major life changes such as the death of a loved one or a physical injury
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • a lack of sleep

Men and women are equally likely to get type 1 bipolar disorder. Women are more likely to get a diagnosis of type 2 bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is often associated with the following conditions:

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • alcoholism
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • drug abuse
  • misphonia, or a hatred of sound
  • sleep disorders
  • stress
  • suicide

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?

Your doctor may use several methods to diagnose bipolar disorder:

  • examining your medical history and symptoms
  • making a comprehensive mental health evaluation, which may include giving you a questionnaire or asking you to keep a record of your mood patterns
  • interviewing family members, close friends, and other people you frequently see, with your permission
  • physically examining you to rule out other causes of symptoms, such as hyperthyroidism

How is bipolar disorder treated?

Treatment will likely involve medication or behavioral therapy, or a combination of the two.


Several drugs effectively treat bipolar disorder. The one with the strongest evidence is lithium. It’s particularly effective in preventing relapses, and treating bipolar depression and manic episodes. Doctors may also prescribe any of the following anticonvulsants:


Counselors and doctors frequently advise people with bipolar disorder to manage stress. Other effective forms of counseling include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and peer support.

Other potential treatments include electroconvulsive therapy, omega-3 fatty acid supplements, and meditation. More research in these areas is necessary.

If you or a loved one receives a diagnosis of any form of bipolar disorder, consider exploring different therapies. Your doctor may recommend combining medication and therapy for better management of your symptoms.


Bipolar disorder isn’t well-understood. Researchers have identified genetics as a risk factor. If you believe you or a loved one may have bipolar disorder, talk to your primary care doctor, a psychiatrist, or a counselor near you.

You Asked, We Answered

  • If my parent has bipolar disorder, should I have my doctor regularly screen me for the disorder?
  • Screening for bipolar disorder by your family doctor can be a good idea. More importantly, you should talk to people you trust who seem to know you the best, such as family members or friends. Loved ones generally notice the symptoms of bipolar disorder before it gets to the point where things are out of control and hospitalization is necessary. If your family members or trusted friends are telling you that your behavior is strange and not your usual behavior, this might be a good time to make an appointment with your doctor.

    - Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC

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