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Men, women with depression live shorter lives

Pank Jit Sin
30 Nov 2017

While depression’s toll on the lifespan of men is well-documented; recent study points to the same holding true for women, as well.

According to a study appearing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, shorter life spans continue to be linked to those with depression and this risk has increased for women in recent years. Researchers of the study looked at mental health data collected from 3,410 adults during three periods (1952 to 1967, 1968 to 1990 and 1991 to 2011) from a region in Atlantic Canada (Stirling County) and then linked the data to deaths in the Canadian Mortality Database. [2017;189:42 doi:10.1503/cmaj.170125]

A link between depression and increased risk of death in men was seen in all the decades studied. However, the link between depression and death only appeared among women in the beginning of the 1990s. It was revealed that the risk of death associated with depression appeared strongest in the years proceeding a depressive episode—an observation which led the authors to speculate that the risk could be reversed by achieving total remission of depression.

The mean age of participants at enrolment in the study was about 49 years. Dr Ian Colman said: “The lifespan for young adults with depression at age 25 was markedly shorter over the 60-year period, ranging from 10 to 12 fewer years of life in the first group, 4 to 7 years in the second group and 7 to 18 fewer years of life in the 1992 group.” Colman is Canada Research Chair in the School of Epidemiology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario. He added: “Most disturbing is the 50 percent increase in the risk of death for women with depression between 1992 and 2011.”

The researchers suggested that societal change may explain the emergent risk of death for women with depression as societal roles changed drastically in the last 20 years. In that period, women were shouldering more multiple responsibilities at home and at the workplace. By 1990, the study notes that the gap between men’s and women’s participation in the work force (which had existed in the early years of the Stirling study) had narrowed considerably. The ensuing increase in expectations and responsibilities both at home and at the workplace, could be responsible for increased stressors placed upon the women, thus triggering the shift in risk of depression.

The authors noted the “long-term mortality burden of depression may reflect cumulative impact of health-related behaviours over time that are associated with chronic conditions to which most deaths are attributable.” Furthermore, people who are depressed tend to have poor diet quality and infrequent exercise; and resort to smoking and excessive alcohol use. [
J Acad Nutr Diet 2012;112:693–698, J Epidemiol Community Health 2016;70:155–161, Gen Hosp Psychiatry 2009;31:306–315]. Additionally, there is evidence that depression may be associated with physiologic changes to the cardiovascular system that directly affect the risk of cardiovascular mortality.   

In light of the findings, the authors suggest that family physicians should monitor patients for mood disturbances, especially recurrent episodes of depression, so that they may offer treatment and support [to fully resolve their depression].

Limitations include a long interval between participant interviews which prevented the determination of the exact timing of depression and the participants’ experiences of recurrent episodes of depression between interviews.


The original Stirling County Study on mental illness, which begun in 1952 and ended in 2011, is internationally renowned as one of the first community-based studies on mental illness.
The recent study is co-authored by Dr Jane Murphy, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, US, who was one of the researchers involved in the original Stirling County Study.

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