Holocaust toddlers nearly twice as likely to develop schizophrenia

Study reinforces argument that survivors carried suffering into later life, rather than emerging stronger and healthier

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A visitor walks by barbed wire fences at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. (AP/Alik Keplicz)
A visitor walks by barbed wire fences at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. (AP/Alik Keplicz)

Israelis who as toddlers aged over two were exposed to trauma and suffering during the Holocaust are almost twice as likely to develop schizophrenia as other European-born Israelis who did not have these experiences, according to a new study from Haifa University.

While Holocaust survivors in general are 27% more likely to develop the disability than their non-survivor peers, those who were in their mothers’ wombs during World War ll and experienced Holocaust horrors after the age of two were 41% more likely to exhibit the disorder.

“Exposure to different traumas during long periods and the suffering that survivors experienced during the Holocaust raised the risk of developing schizophrenia,” said Prof Stephen Levine of Haifa University’s community mental health department, citing “a combination of influences during pregnancy and after birth,” the Haaretz news site reported Monday.

Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects an estimated one in 100 people, affecting how a person thinks, feels, and behaves and sometimes appearing as if sufferers have lost touch with reality. Scientists are still far from a thorough understanding of the disability.

Genetics are thought to play a part while the influence of environmental factors and of epigenetics — genetic variation caused by environment factors rather than DNA changes — is still a subject of debate.

“Exposure to Genocide and the Risk of Schizophrenia” was based on medical and demographic databases holding details on 114,000 Israelis who were born between 1928 and 1945 in European countries where the Holocaust took place, immigrated to Israel until 1965 and whose names appeared on the Population Registry. The subjects were followed for schizophrenia in the National Psychiatric Case Registry from 1950 to 2014.

“In the research literature, there’s an argument about the influences of exposure to the Holocaust,” said Levine, who co-led the study with Prof Yitzhak Levav and with other researchers from Haifa University and the Health Ministry. “There are those who claim that Holocaust survivors who made it through were stronger and healthier people and therefore one could assume in advance that they would be at lower risk of developing schizophrenia. On the other hand, there are those who say that after long-term exposure to extreme trauma, Holocaust survivors were at greater risk of developing schizophrenia, and this research strengthens this [latter] claim.”

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