The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just confirmed what many already knew: women between the ages of 40 and 59 have higher rates of depression than any other subset of the population. Under the auspices of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, from 2009 to 2012 the CDC interviewed a broad cross-section of people to determine the status of their mental health. Based on diagnostic standards contained within the nine-question Patient Health Questionnaire, researchers found that 7.6 percent of the American people (aged 12 and above) displayed symptoms consistent with moderate-to-severe depression. Broken down by gender, 9.5 percent of women and 5.6 percent of men registered positive for this common mental disorder, and women had higher rates of depression in every age group. With a depression rate of 12.3 percent, women in the 40-59 age group were the “winners” in a contest that no one was interested in winning. That number is 30 percent higher than the depression rate for women overall and outranks men in the same age category by more than 5 percentage points. Approximately 25 percent of all American women will suffer at least one bout of serious depression over the course of their lifetimes, and the majority of those who do will not make it through their middle years unscathed. Most scientists agree that biology plays a big role in the onset of midlife depression in women. During the perimenopausal period, which occurs just prior to the beginning of menopause, estrogen levels can fluctuate wildly in a woman’s body, and this can trigger mood changes that may lead to depression. The risk for depression in women tends to stay elevated during menopause but drops off quite a bit after it ends, proving that at least some connection exists between biochemical changes in the body and the incidence of this particular mood disorder. But retreating into biological reductionism to explain high rates of midlife depression in women would be a mistake. Middle-aged men suffer from depression at a 25 percent greater frequency than any other male age group, so it appears midlife vulnerability transcends biological factors relevant to only one gender.
Exploring the Social, Cultural, Psychological and Emotional Causes of Depression in Middle-Aged Women
Personal history unquestionably plays a huge role in the onset and continuation of depression, regardless of the age or gender of the victim. Nevertheless, the runaway rate of depression in middle-aged women clearly requires an explanation. Here are just a few possible answers that have been suggested by psychiatrists, psychologists and depression sufferers themselves:
- The increased onset of serious health problems in middle age (cancer, diabetes, arthritis, strokes, heart attacks, etc., which could affect spouses as well as the depressed person).
- The challenges of single parenthood (51 percent of teens grow up in single-parent households, the majority living with their mothers).
- Sudden unemployment with questionable prospects for finding a new job, as well as the financial complications that can follow.
- Loneliness following divorce and/or grown children leaving home.
- Aging parents and the challenges of caring for them.
- Past experiences with depression, often related to the postpartum period, increasing the risk of the disorder redeveloping later in life.
- Living in a culture that celebrates youth and promotes insecurity about the process of aging.
All of these predictors for depression apply to middle-aged men as well as middle-aged women, which explains why rates spike among both groups. But when the biological aspects mentioned previously are factored into the equation, along with the elevated risk for the disorder that women of all ages face, it gives us a comprehensive outline of understanding that can explain why women in the 40-59 age group are so much more prone to depression than others.
Treatment for Depression Works—When It Is Given the Chance
In addition to the statistics already mentioned, the researchers involved in the CDC study uncovered something alarming about people’s patterns of response to their depression. Among the disorder’s millions of victims, only 13 percent, 20 percent and 35 percent of mild, moderate and severe depression sufferers respectively had ever sought professional help following the onset of their conditions. Treatment regimens of therapy alone or therapy plus medication have helped innumerable men and women recover from the depredations of clinical depression, and there is no question its rates of incidence could be reduced if more people sought help in the early stages of their condition. Or in the middle stages. Or in the late stages. No matter how long the disorder has been present, psychological or psychiatric intervention can always make an impact. Depression is a curable disorder, and all of its victims could benefit from the assistance of trained and experienced mental health professionals.