Depression

Sadness touches our lives at different times, but usually comes and goes. Depression, in contrast, often has enormous depth and staying power. It is more than a passing bout of "the blues." Depression can leave you feeling continuously burdened and can squash the joy you once got out of pleasurable activities.

When depression strikes, doctors usually probe what's going on in the mind and brain first. But it's also important to check what's going on in the body, since some medical problems are linked to mood disturbances. In fact, physical illnesses and medication side effects are behind up to 15% of all depression cases.

Depression isn't a one-size-fits-all illness. Instead, it can take many forms. Everyone's experience and treatment for depression is different. Effective treatments include talk therapy, medications, and exercise. Even bright light is used to treat a winter-onset depression known as seasonal affective disorder. Treatment can improve mood, strengthen connections with loved ones, and restore satisfaction in interests and hobbies.

New discoveries are helping improve our understanding of the biology of depression. These advances could pave the way for even more effective treatment with new drugs and devices. Better understanding of the genetics of depression could also usher in an era of personalized treatment.

Depression Articles

Can you die of a broken heart?

Harvard Heart Letter | January 2002 (updated February 2012) Now and then, the obituary page lists the deaths of an older couple that passed away within a short time of each other. "I bet they died of a broken heart," you might muse with a sad shake of the head. Can that really happen? Several centuries ago, the answer would have been yes — "griefe" was widely considered a cause of death. Thirty years ago, scientists would have dismissed such a romantic idea. Now we're edging back to yes again, nudged by documented instances of bad news triggering heart attacks, studies tracing the repercussions of bereavement or the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters, and a better understanding of how stress and depression affect the heart. More »

Depression and cardiovascular risk in women

Smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity, high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD). There's mounting evidence that depression should be added to this list. Research suggests that it increases the chances of developing heart disease and stroke, even after factors such as smoking are taken into account. Two investigations highlight the relationship between depression and CVD in postmenopausal women. (Locked) More »

Do antidepressants work in the damaged brain?

In contrast to the disappointing results for Alzheimer's disease, antidepressants are showing real promise as medications that might help people recover from strokes — and their positive effects may go beyond depression. Successful treatment of depression may have "downstream" benefits that go beyond mental health. Antidepressants may also positively affect areas and networks in the brain that improve other impaired functions, not just mental outlook and depression. In 2011, French investigators reported that fluoxetine and physical therapy improved people's recovery from stroke-induced paralysis and muscle weakness. And at about the same time, a team of researchers from Japan and the University of Iowa published findings that showed fluoxetine or nortriptyline (Aventyl, Pamelor, other brands), one of the tricyclic antidepressants, helped with overall disability. (Locked) More »

When depression starts in the neck

Treating an underactive thyroid gland may improve mood. When someone develops depression, the brain usually becomes the focus of attention. But other organs can be the source of the problem. A common example is when the thyroid gland produces too little hormone — a condition known as hypothyroidism. Nearly 10 million Americans suffer from hypothyroidism. The condition is much more common in women than in men, and becomes more prevalent with age. As many as one in five women will develop hypothyroidism by age 60. Although researchers aren't entirely sure why there is a link between hypothyroidism and depression, it is likely that some people are taking antidepressants when they should really be taking thyroid medication. Here is a brief review of when clinicians and patients should consider hypothyroidism as a possible cause of low mood — and what to do next. More »

In Brief

Brief reports on hypertension statistics, a theory about why some people show more of an HDL cholesterol benefit from exercise than others, and more about the connection between depression and heart disease. (Locked) More »

Major depression more likely during perimenopause than during premenopause

Perimenopause begins several years before menopause (the end of menstruation) and ends a year after the last menstrual period. During this transition, ovarian hormones are in flux, resulting in irregular periods and sometimes vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats). In a study, approximately one-third of women in perimenopause had at least one episode of major depression. (Locked) More »

Women and depression

Women are about twice as likely as men to develop major depression. They also have higher rates of seasonal affective disorder, depressive symptoms in bipolar disorder, and dysthymia (chronic depression). More than mere sadness, depression can make someone feel as though work, school, relationships, and other aspects of life have been derailed or indefinitely put on hold. It can sap the joy out of once-pleasurable activities and leave someone feeling continuously burdened. This mood disorder may also cause physical symptoms, such as fatigue, pain, and gastrointestinal problems. It remains unclear why a gender gap exists in depression. Researchers have examined genes, hormones, stress, and other factors in an effort to find an explanation for the discrepancy. More »

Four sob stories

Research on crying focuses on several different areas, including the chemicals in emotional tears and their purpose, and whether or not depressed people cry more. Tears provoked by emotion contain higher levels of proteins and the mineral manganese. In 2011, Israeli researchers reported results in the journal Science that suggested tears are capable of sending chemical signals. They conducted an experiment that involved having men sniff women's tears and a saline solution. Tests showed that the men reacted differently to a whiff of the real tears. Their testosterone levels dipped, and brain scans showed less activity in areas associated with sexual arousal. The researchers' theory: women's tears may counteract men's aggressive tendencies. Others have speculated on the role of tears in evolution and natural selection. Depression makes people sad, so it's presumed that depressed people cry more than those who aren't depressed. There's also an abiding belief that more severe bouts with depression can have just the opposite effect and rob people of their capacity to cry. Researchers found that an inability to cry was associated with severe depression. (Locked) More »