Major Depression in Women

Posted on March 4th, 2013
Posted in Depression

Major depression, known formally as major depressive disorder, is a relatively common psychiatric condition characterized by disruptive or disabling feelings of sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, and a variety of other mood-destabilizing mental states. People with the disorder have increased risks for serious or fatal problems such as alcohol abuse and addiction, drug abuse and addiction, heart disease, strokes, and suicide. Women develop major depression approximately twice as often as men, and women in their childbearing years have particularly high risks for the disorder. Much of women’s susceptibility to depression stems from a number of gender-related risk factors not found in men.

Major Depression Basics

According to professional guidelines set forth by the American Psychiatric Association, doctors can consider diagnosing major depression in any person who experiences five or more specific symptoms that indicate a serious depressive state. These symptoms include a persistent depressed mood, persistent loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities, abnormal sleepiness or sleeplessness, abnormal fatigue, significant unexplained weight loss, loss of mental clarity, intense feelings of guilt or worthlessness, a form of aimless or pointless body movement called psychomotor agitation, and recurring suicidal thoughts, plans, or actions. When they appear, each of these symptoms must predominate for a period of at least two weeks and seriously interfere with the affected individual’s ability to do such things as work, go to school, maintain interpersonal relationships or conduct a normal daily routine.

Anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of all Americans will experience symptoms of major depression at some point after late adolescence. Some people only experience a single episode of these symptoms; however, most people with the disorder experience multiple or repeated episodes that appear over a period of months or years. No one knows precisely why any given person develops major depression, the Mayo Clinic explains. Potential factors that may play a role in its onset in both men and women include genetically inherited tendencies, exposure to abuse or other forms of major trauma during childhood, and exposure to major trauma at a later age.

Risk Factors in Women

Before reaching puberty, boys and girls have more or less equal chances of developing a depressive illness. However, after puberty occurs, females’ depression risks skyrocket in comparison to the risks found in males. According to a 2003 study conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University, part of this spike in depression risks seems to stem from the actions of a female sex hormone called progesterone. When it circulates in the body after puberty, this hormone interferes with women’s ability to effectively regulate their stress levels. In turn, uncontrolled stress inside the body can eventually trigger damage in certain key areas of the brain, including a structure called the hippocampus, which helps create vital connections between emotions, sensory input and memory.

In what appears to be a linked phenomenon, when compared to men, women typically react relatively poorly to the types of low-level stress that occur more or less universally in adult life. When exposed to this everyday stress, women undergo more harmful changes in their body chemistry than men. In addition, women tend to relive or re-experience stressful situations more frequently than men, particularly when the situation in question involves interpersonal, intimate, or family relationships. Effectively, these factors appear to combine and increase the likelihood of stress-related depression. Unusually stressful situations that can also contribute to a woman’s depression risks include raising a child as a single parent and caring for an elderly parent. In addition to the hormonal changes related to puberty, other hormonal changes-including those associated with monthly menstruation, pregnancy and menopause-may also increase a woman’s risks for major depression.

Differences in Brain Chemistry

In 2011, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine released the results of a study that examined the brains of women with major depression. These researchers concluded that, compared to women without major depression, women with the disorder experience significant changes in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which plays a vital role in the human ability to comprehend and express changing emotional states. Specifically, depressed women have abnormally low levels of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which normally slows down brain activity and produces a calming effect on a person’s emotional state. Awareness of this GABA deficit may help future researchers develop more effective tools to address the effects of major depression.

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