Study Questions Why Older Women Are More Vulnerable to Depression Than Older Men
> 2/12/2008 1:25:45 PM

Major depression affects only about 1-2% of senior Americans, but 8-20% of this population experiences some symptoms of depression. Older women are more likely to develop depression than their male counterparts, and while this gender gap exists at every age range, research has not yet revealed exactly why women are roughly twice as likely as men to develop depression. In one recent study, researchers from the Yale School of Medicine surmised that gender differences associated with depression's onset, persistency, and mortality may help explain why women account for so many cases of depression among the elderly.

The study, which appears in the February edition of Archives of General Psychiatry, examined 754 adults over the age of 70, focusing on the subjects' transitions between depression, non-depression, and death. The subjects were assessed at 18 month intervals over the course of 6 years. During that time, 35% of the subjects were depressed at some point. Women were more likely than men to be depressed at baseline, and the prevalence of depression among women outweighed that of men at each subsequent assessment.

Specifically, the study's results showed that among subjects who were not depressed, women had a greater chance of becoming depressed and a lower chance of remaining non-depressed or dying. When looking at depressed subjects, women had higher rates of remaining depressed and lower rates of overcoming depression or dying. These results indicate that, compared to older men, older women are more likely to become depressed, experience more persistent depression, and live with depression for a longer period of time.

The researchers were somewhat surprised by the implication that depression persists in older women more than in older men. Women receive more treatment for depression overall, and they suggest that women receive less aggressive treatment for depression that occurs later in life or that treatment may work less effectively for older women. Of subjects who were depressed at some point throughout the study, almost 40% were depressed for at least two consecutive assessments. Treatment plays an important role in alleviating depression, and older adults should receive treatment to reduce their chances of having persistent or recurrent episodes.

This study indicates that the rate of depression in older women may be a reflection of the fact that women are more susceptible to depression in general, more likely to experience persistent depression, and tend to live longer with depression. Collectively, these factors heighten the rate of depression among older women, but other factors are undoubtedly involved. Hormones play a major role, and the combined force of work and family stress take a toll on women's mental health, especially for single mothers and women who act as caregivers for other family members in addition to children. As researchers continue to study these connections, we will have a better idea of the ways in which gender influences depression and of how best to treat those most at risk.

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