Genetics, Personality Affect Risks for Postmenopausal Depression
Generally speaking, women develop diagnosable symptoms of depression more often than men. The risks for depressive illness typically decrease after a woman goes through menopause; however, some postmenopausal women do experience depression-related difficulties. In a study published in February 2015 in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, researchers from two Polish universities looked at the impact that long-term personality traits and genetically inherited brain chemical levels have on the chances that any given woman will develop depression symptoms after going through menopause.
Depression in Women
Along with men, women can develop a range of diagnosable depressive illnesses, including major depression (the most widely known and severe form of depression), persistent depressive disorder and substance/medication-induced depressive disorder. Women also have risks for gender-specific depressive illnesses that include postpartum depression (a unique manifestation of major depression) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a condition characterized by more severe forms of the mood changes and emotional fluctuations associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Much of a woman’s increased exposure to depression risks is hormone-related. During menstruation, women undergo substantial alterations in their hormone levels; in turn, these hormonal changes make “down” or depressed mental states more likely to occur. Pregnancy and the postpartum period after pregnancy also involve major shifts in hormone levels, and women have especially high chances of developing at least minor symptoms of depression in the aftermath of childbirth. Another spike in depression risks occurs when a woman transitions from her childbearing years into menopause, a phase of life characterized by declining levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Postmenopausal women no longer go through the hormonal fluctuations associated with monthly menstruation and pregnancy, and therefore they usually experience a drop in their depression exposure. However, some women will still develop depression after going through menopause.
Mood, Genetics and Personality
In every human being, baseline mood is largely controlled by the interactions of naturally occurring chemicals found in the brain and body. Perhaps the most important mood-related chemical is serotonin, which helps the brain regulate changes between various emotional states. Other chemicals that play a role in mood include substances called dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. In any given individual, the day-to-day levels of serotonin and these other chemicals are determined through genetic inheritance. Most people have genetic variations that support a normal chemical balance inside the brain; however, others inherit genetic variations that lead to an abnormal increase or decrease in one or more brain chemicals. Crucially, the brain’s chemical balance also has a profound impact on the long-term personality traits that help distinguish human beings from one another.
Impact on Postmenopausal Depression
In the study published in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, researchers from Poland’s Pomeranian Medical University of Szczecin and University of Szczecin used data gathered from 272 generally healthy women to explore the combined impact of genetic variation and personality-related factors on the chances that a postmenopausal woman will develop depression. All of the women involved in the project had gone through menopause. Each individual took a widely used screening tool for depression called the Beck Depression Inventory, a screening tool for menopause-related symptoms called the Blatt-Kupperman Menopausal Index and a personality trait test called the Neuroticism-Extroversion-Openness-Five-Factor Inventory. In addition, all of the women underwent an assessment of the genes responsible for determining levels of serotonin and other mood-related chemicals.
The researchers concluded that a genetic variation in the production of serotonin substantially increases the odds that a postmenopausal woman will experience physical and emotional/psychological symptoms of menopause. They also concluded that a specific genetic variation in the production of the chemicals dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline substantially increases the odds that a postmenopausal woman will develop diagnosable symptoms of depression. In addition, the researchers concluded that postmenopausal women with certain personality characteristics—including the elevated guilt, envy and anxiety associated with high levels of a personality trait called neuroticism—have increased depression risks. Critically, the researchers also determined that genetic variations in serotonin levels help determine which women will have depression-related personality traits.
The study’s authors believe that it may be possible to reduce the risks for postmenopausal depression by identifying and preemptively helping those women with depression-related genetic predispositions and personality traits.