Extra B Vitamins Don’t Reduce Older Women’s Depression Risks, Study Finds
Medical doctors and alternative practitioners sometimes recommend the supplemental use of folic acid and other B vitamins as a secondary treatment for the symptoms of depression. In a study published in January 2015 in the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ journal BJ Psych, researchers from several Harvard University-affiliated institutions assessed the impact of long-term B vitamin supplementation on the chances that an older woman or middle-aged woman will be affected by symptoms of depressive illness.
Women’s Depression Risks
For biological, social, economic and cultural reasons, women in the U.S. receive a diagnosis for a depression-related illness far more often than men. The biological reasons for gender-based depression differences are largely sex hormone-associated. When women enter certain stages of the monthly menstrual cycle, they experience significant spikes in their chances of developing hormone-related “down” or depressed moods. Pregnancy, the postpartum period following childbirth and the onset of menopause also feature changes in hormonal balance that elevate women’s depression exposure. In addition, current research links women’s depression risks to other factors that include doctors’ relatively pronounced tendency to diagnose depression in women (compared to men with the same core symptoms), mental strain linked to a relative lack of socioeconomic opportunities for women and mental strain linked to women’s culturally established responsibility for the management of household affairs (even when they also work outside of the home).
In addition to their gender-related risks for depressive illness, older women have depression risks associated with advancing age. Sources of increased risk for older women (and older men) include reduced functional independence linked to changes in physical health, heightened exposure to medication interactions or side effects that damage mental health, increased chances of experiencing the death of a spouse or other close-age contemporaries and an unfortunate cultural tendency to view depression as somehow “natural” in older people, rather than as a serious and potentially debilitating mental health challenge.
B Vitamins and Depression
B vitamins are a group of nutrients that the human body needs to accomplish such essential tasks as making red blood cells, pulling useful energy from various types of food, making DNA and maintaining normal function of nerve cells and nerve networks. Current scientific evidence tentatively associates low levels of certain B vitamins—including folic acid (also known as folate or vitamin B9), vitamin B6 and vitamin B12—to increased chances of developing depression. Subsequently, some doctors and alternative practitioners believe that supplementation with these vitamins may reduce depression risks. The depression-related benefits of B vitamins are purportedly linked to their ability to lower levels of an inflammation-promoting substance in the body called homocysteine.
Can B Vitamins Reduce Depression Risks?
In the study published in BJ Psych, researchers from Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital used a large-scale, long-term project to examine the impact of prolonged supplementation with B vitamins on the odds that middle-aged women or older women will develop depression. A total of 4,331 women with an average age of 63 took part in this project. At the beginning of the study, none of the participating women had a history of depression. Over an average period of seven years, half of the women received daily supplemental doses of vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and folic acid. The other half of the participants received daily doses of identical-looking placebo substances for the same average amount of time. After the period of supplement use and placebo use came to an end, each woman was asked to report the presence of any depression symptoms identified by a doctor, as well as any official identifications of fully diagnosable depression.
Five hundred twenty-four of the women enrolled in the study developed depression symptoms or diagnosable depressive illness during the period under consideration. When the researchers compared the group of participants receiving B vitamin supplements to the group of participants receiving a placebo, they found no statistically significant differences in the depression rates identified in each group. (By a very small amount, the B vitamin users actually had a higher depression rate than the placebo users.) Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that prolonged, regular B vitamin supplementation does not reduce middle-aged women’s or older women’s level of depression exposure.