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Depression is twice as common in women as in men, and the impact of the untreated disease reverberates—it’s linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and perhaps even cancer. “Depression doesn’t just affect the brain,” says Dr. John Zajecka, a psychiatrist and the director of the Woman’s Board Depression Treatment & Research Center at Rush.
Researchers aren’t certain why women are more likely to be depressed than men, but the disparity seems to reflect hormone differences and social pressures, says clinical psychologist Jackie Gollan, the director of the translational stress and affective disorders laboratory at Northwestern’s Feinberg School. Around puberty, “girls begin to overthink [and] pull negative information from the environment,” especially about body image, she says. She and her team are collecting information on the differences between women’s and men’s brains—and on the risk of depression over a woman’s reproductive lifespan. Times of change—such as puberty and menopause—are associated with increased rates of depression. But even elderly women, removed from those periods of hormonal change, may experience more depression because of loneliness and loss of social support.
Gollan’s team is enrolling women for several studies designed to solve the mystery of female depression. One will use MRI to measure the differences in emotion and attention between healthy and depressed women. The group expects to discover reduced activation in the front part of the brain, which is involved in planning, thinking, expressing personality, and making decisions; and in the amygdala, the “emotion center” deep in the brain. Another study will focus on women’s mental health during and after pregnancy to create a predictive index for postpartum depression. “Untreated maternal depression is very serious,” says Gollan.
In addition, she and her team have written a screening protocol for all outpatient clinics affiliated with Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. Pregnant women will be asked about their moods twice while they are pregnant and once after delivery. “It represents good clinical care because perinatal depression risk increases in the second trimester,” says Gollan.
She points out the profound social consequences of untreated depression in new mothers. Depressed moms have trouble identifying positive elements in their surroundings, she says. “If you think about the translation of that to their environment, they appear to pay more attention to negative [things].”
HEART DISEASE | FERTILITY | PREGNANCY | BREAST AND OVARIAN CANCER
CERVICAL AND ENDOMETRIAL CANCER | OSTEOPOROSIS
HEADACHES, MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS, AND OTHER NEUROLOGIC DISORDERS | DEPRESSION
EATING DISORDERS | INCONTINENCE | IMMUNE DISORDERS | SLEEP DISORDERS