Understanding Risk Factors for OCD

The Cause of OCD is Unknown, but These are Factors to Consider

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There are many risk factors for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A risk factor is something that increases a person’s chances of eventually developing a given illness. Risk factors can include a person’s age, gender, family history, the kinds of behavior they engage in, the type of environment they grew up in, and the experiences they’ve had.

Risk Factors for OCD

No one knows what causes OCD, but here are the risk factors.

Remember, just because you might have a higher risk for developing OCD does not mean that you will. Conversely, people can develop OCD without having any or many risk factors at all.

Age. Late adolescence seems to be the time when people are at the greatest risk for developing OCD. Once in early adulthood, the risk of developing OCD drops with age.

Gender. Gender as a risk factor for developing OCD varies with age. Males are at greater risk for developing childhood OCD. However, following the onset of puberty the risk of developing OCD for males and females is about the same. Men and woman may exhibit different symptoms. Males are more likely to complain of obsessions related to sexuality, exactness and symmetry, and women are more likely to complain about obsessions and compulsions related to contamination and cleaning.

Genetics. About 50% of your risk for developing OCD is determined by your genes.

As such, having family members with OCD is a risk factor for developing the disease. The closer these individuals are to your immediate family, the greater your risk, particularly if their OCD began in childhood or the teen years. It is important to keep in mind, however, that families can shape our behavior in ways other than through genes.

For example, many of the ways that we use to cope with stress are learned from our families. As such, a family could pass on poor ways of dealing with stress, thus increasing the likelihood of developing OCD.

Life Events. Stressful life events, particularly those that are traumatic in nature and which occurred early on in life, are major risk factors for developing OCD. For example, having been physically and sexually abused are important risk factors for the development of OCD.

Brain Structure. Though the connection is not clear, there seems to be a relation between OCD symptoms and certain irregularities in the brain. Research is being done to discover more. 

Mental Illness. Having another form of mental illness, especially another anxiety disorder, is a risk factor for developing OCD. This relationship is complex, however, since in some people, OCD may be a risk factor for other mental illnesses.

Personality. Certain personality characteristics may contribute to a vulnerability for developing OCD. For example, people who score high on measures of neuroticism may be at greater risk for developing OCD.

Drug Use. The use of illicit drugs is a risk factor for developing OCD. Drug use can create a vulnerability for developing OCD by causing neurotransmitter changes in the brain, as well as indirectly by creating additional stress through conflict with parents, difficulty maintaining employment and trouble with the law.

Marital Status. Being unmarried seems to be a risk factor for developing OCD. Whether this is a direct cause of OCD or not is unclear, as being unmarried may simply be a result of debilitating OCD symptoms that get in the way of forming relationships. On the other hand, marriage may buffer people against life stress, thus reducing the chances of developing OCD.

Employment Status. Being unemployed is also a risk factor for developing OCD. However, like being unmarried, being unemployed may be both a cause and a consequence of OCD symptoms.

Socioeconomic Status. Lower socioeconomic status is another risk factor for developing OCD.

Again, like marital and unemployment status, it is unclear whether this is a cause or consequence of OCD symptoms.


Grisham, J.R., Anderson, T.M., and Sachdev, P.S. “Genetic and environmental influences on obsessive-compulsive disorder” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience2008 258: 107-116.

Fontenelle, L.F. and Hasler, G. “The analytical epidemiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder: Risk factors and correlates” Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry2008 32: 1-15.


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