Is bipolar disorder genetic? Why family history increases risk

The exact inheritance pattern of bipolar is unclear, but it is likely that variations in many genes combine to increase a person’s risk. Some environmental factors also play a role in triggering its symptoms.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimate that 2.8 percent of adults in the United States experience bipolar disorder in any given year. They also say that 4.4 percent of people will experience it at some point during their life.

In this article, we look at the genetic and nongenetic factors that may cause bipolar disorder, as well as some potential treatments for the condition.

Genetics and bipolar disorder

People are more likely to develop bipolar disorder if they have a close relative with the condition.

They are also more likely to develop bipolar if they have another mental health condition, such as depression or schizophrenia.

Some research suggests that the lifetime risk of bipolar disorder in relatives of someone with the condition is 5–10 percent for a close relative and 40–70 percent for a twin.

However, scientists do not fully understand the role that genes play in bipolar disorder.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some studies indicate that irregularities in many genes combine to increase a person’s risk. The exact way that this occurs remains unclear.

It is likely that just having a genetic predisposition to the disorder is not enough to trigger its development. Environmental factors may also be necessary to trigger symptoms in people with the relevant gene variations.

It is also important to note that just because someone is at greater risk of having bipolar disorder, it does not mean that they will go on to develop it.

Research suggests that the majority of people with a genetic risk are healthy, and most people with a relative who has bipolar disorder do not have the condition themselves.

Lithium, a mood stabilizer, is a common drug treatment for bipolar. Research suggests that it can help prevent relapses long-term.

Many people with bipolar will need to take alternative or additional medicines, such as:

  • anti-anxiety medications
  • antipsychotic drugs
  • antidepressants
  • sleeping pills

It is up to the individual’s doctor to determine whether or not they should take a specific medication. However, they do take the person’s unique circumstances into consideration when they make a decision.


Psychotherapy can be beneficial for people with bipolar disorder. It can help people:

  • recognize changes in their thoughts, behaviors, and mood
  • regulate their emotions
  • address unhelpful thought patterns
  • establish routines
  • learn new coping skills
  • manage stress
  • communicate with family members and other people more generally

Lifestyle modifications

Most people with bipolar may need to make lifestyle modifications to reduce the occurrence or severity of manic or depressive symptoms.

Some such changes include:

  • not using drugs or alcohol
  • eating a healthful diet
  • exercising regularly
  • establishing a sleep routine
  • keeping a mood diary
  • reducing stress through meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises
  • seeking support
  • staying up to date on bipolar treatments


Most experts believe that there is a genetic component to bipolar disorder, but they do not fully understand the specifics. They also think that these genetic variations must interact with environmental factors to trigger symptoms.

People with a close relative who has bipolar are at a higher risk of developing the condition, though being at risk does not mean that someone will definitely develop it.

People with any concerns that they or a family member are showing symptoms of bipolar disorder should see their doctor.

Many treatments exist to help people manage their symptoms and maintain a relatively good quality of life.

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