This past weekend I was at a gathering attended by many women ages 45 to 65, and noticed that one very hot topic seemed to trump all others: depression, and how severely it was affecting many women later in life. There were tons of stories, and many different experiences, but one common thread. It was concern (panic, even) about the extreme mood swings many of us or our older relatives were experiencing—and how hard we've found it to get doctors to take this issue seriously. There was one more common link: Many of those sharing stories said the dark moods had hit with the onset of menopause.
"I just feel completely dismissed every time I bring this up with my doctor," one woman grumbled. "She keeps saying it's just hormonal fluctuations from menopause and it'll go away in a few years. But what do I do between now and then? I'm afraid my marriage won't last that long!"
A gentleman present told us he actually charts his wife's moods on the calendar, and there's one week a month he simply tries to be out of the house as much as possible. "How's that for a solution," he said to general laughter. For others, depression had begun to cause problems when they were in their 50s but had deepened over time.
In fact, some stories were truly scary.
One friend's mother is suffering from depression so severe that her doctors have recommended electroshock therapy. My friend's question was fairly simple—shouldn't they try every possible antidepressant first? After all, electroshock comes with the risk of memory loss, a problem her mom's already struggling with. Another friend said her formerly social, outgoing mom has become almost housebound, losing interest in all her old friends and activities since her children moved away from home and her husband retired.
I went home and decided to do some research to see if our instinct was correct that this issue has become a serious one, yet isn't being taken seriously enough. Absolutely - a Yale School of Public Health study last year found that older women are not only more likely to be depressed than men in the same age group, their depression is more likely to last a long time. I found that the tide seems to be turning, but only very recently. Just this past fall, World Psychiatry, the "official journal of the world psychiatric association," published a comprehensive article that called depression in older women "a significant cause of morbidity and disability."
Their conclusions were startling, actually—that menopause seems to present a "window of vulnerability" during which women are at high risk for the onset of major depressive symptoms. The problem is, for many, those symptoms don't go away.
Other common risk factors they found that contributed to depression in women:
- Sleeping poorly
- Memory problems
- Sexual problems
- Chronic aches or pain
- Declining physical energy
- "Empty nest" syndrome
- A history of severe PMS moodiness
- Surgical menopause after hysterectomy
- Divorce, separation, or widowhood
If you or another woman in your life is experiencing depression, it may very well be hormone-related, and it's important for her to talk to a doctor openly. Unfortunately, it will probably be necessary to speak up loudly and more than once—mental health care is still one of the most overlooked health needs. Become an advocate and demand help—there's no reason for any woman to spend her later years missing out on life because of depression.
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