The Causes of Depression in Women

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Hello and welcome to DepressionCast.

Depression doesn't discriminate. It afflicts both men and women. But it does affect the genders differently. Today, let's look at possible causes for depression in women.

Scientists are examining many potential causes for and contributing factors to women's increased risk for depression. It is likely that genetic, biological, chemical, hormonal, environmental, psychological, and social factors all combine to contribute to depression in women.

If a woman has a family history of depression, she may be more at risk of developing the illness. However, this isn't a hard and fast rule. Depression can occur in women without family histories of depression, and women from families with a history of depression may not develop depression themselves. Genetics research indicates that the risk for developing depression likely involves the combination of multiple genes with environmental or other factors.

Brain chemistry appears to be a significant factor in depressive disorders. Modern brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brains of people suffering from depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite and behavior don't appear to be functioning normally. In addition, important neurotransmitters - chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine that brain cells use to communicate - appear to be out of balance. But these images don't reveal WHY the depression has occurred.

Scientists are also studying the influence of female hormones, which change throughout life. Researchers have shown that hormones directly affect the brain chemistry that controls emotions and mood. Specific times during a woman's life are of particular interest, including puberty; the times before menstrual periods; before, during, and just after pregnancy (postpartum); and just prior to and during menopause (perimenopause).

Some women may be susceptible to a severe form of premenstrual syndrome called premenstrual dysphoric disorder or PMDD. Women affected by PMDD typically experience depression, anxiety, irritability and mood swings the week before menstruation, in such a way that interferes with their normal functioning. Women with debilitating PMDD don't necessarily have unusual hormone changes, but they do have different responses to these changes. They may also have a history of other mood disorders and differences in brain chemistry that cause them to be more sensitive to menstruation-related hormone changes. Scientists are exploring how the cyclical rise and fall of estrogen and other hormones may affect the brain chemistry that is associated with depressive illness.

Women are particularly vulnerable to depression after giving birth, when hormonal and physical changes and the new responsibility of caring for a newborn can be overwhelming. Many new mothers experience a brief episode of mild mood changes known as the "baby blues," but some will suffer from postpartum depression, a much more serious condition that requires active treatment and emotional support for the new mother. One study found that postpartum women are at an increased risk for several mental health disorders, including depression, for several months after childbirth.

Some studies suggest that women who experience postpartum depression often have had prior depressive episodes. Some experience it during their pregnancies, but it often goes undetected. Research suggests that visits to the doctor may be good opportunities for screening for depression both during pregnancy and in the postpartum period.

Hormonal changes increase during the transition between premenopause to menopause. While some women may transition into menopause without any problems with mood, others experience an increased risk for depression. This seems to occur even among women without a history of depression. However, depression becomes less common for women during the post-menopause period.

Stressful life events such as trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship or any stressful situation-whether welcome or unwelcome-often occur before a depressive episode. Additional work and home responsibilities, caring for children and aging parents, abuse, and poverty also may trigger a depressive episode. Evidence suggests that women respond differently than men to these events, making them more prone to depression. In fact, research indicates that women respond in such a way that prolongs their feelings of stress more so than men, increasing the risk for depression. However, it is unclear why some women faced with enormous challenges develop depression, and some with similar challenges do not.

Before adolescence, girls and boys experience depression at about the same frequency. By adolescence, however, girls become more likely to experience depression than boys.

Research points to several possible reasons for this imbalance.

  • The biological and hormonal changes that occur during puberty likely contribute to the sharp increase in rates of depression among adolescent girls.
  • In addition, research has suggested that girls are more likely than boys to continue feeling bad after experiencing difficult situations or events, suggesting they are more prone to depression.
  • Another study found that girls tended to doubt themselves, doubt their problem-solving abilities and view their problems as unsolvable more so than boys. The girls with these views were more likely to have depressive symptoms as well.
  • Girls also tended to need a higher degree of approval and success to feel secure than boys.

Finally, girls may undergo more hardships, such as poverty, poor education, childhood sexual abuse, and other traumas than boys. One study found that more than 70 percent of depressed girls experienced a difficult or stressful life event prior to a depressive episode, as compared with only 14 percent of boys.

That's a lot of information to absorb, but for all of us who are asking, "Why," it's valuable information. Too many times, we blame ourselves for our depression, and we don't get the help we need and deserve. Hopefully, learning more about depression will help us move past that to a better life.

Living with depression isn't easy -- for people with depression or for those who care about them. Thankfully, we now have quite effective treatments that can restore the health and quality of life of most people with depression. We'll have a new episode of DepressionCast for you in two weeks. In the meantime, please visit us at for information, support, or the transcript of this podcast.

For and the HealthCentral Network, this is Teri Robert, wishing you health and happiness.


"Women and Depression: Discovering Hope" National Institute of Mental Health. February 5, 2009.