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Depression Health Center

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Mary's Brain vs. Harry's Brain

Genetics, brain structure, social roles make women more prone to clinical depression.

Emotional Secrets of the Amygdala continued...

In studies involving spouses, women could recall memories - first date, last vacation, a recent argument -- more quickly than men did. Women's memories were also more emotionally intense and vivid than men's memories, Hamann adds.

"Women may be more predisposed to experience events more intensely, more vividly," he tells WebMD. That ability has a downside: "Women have greater propensity to rumination; going over the same negative events amplifies its negative consequences."

Animal studies show similar patterns, he says. "The emotional arousal that leads to stress responses and stress hormones affects basic memory machinery in male and female rats differently."

Evolution at Work

As our species evolved, this emotional sensitivity helped females in protecting themselves and their young. On the other hand, "males want to remember where better hunting grounds are," says Hamann.

This makes sense, in terms of how stress affects today's women. "Emotional responses are hardwired in women; we're more sensitive to losses of attachment," Weissman tells WebMD. "That's what depression is about -- loss of attachment. The breakup of a relationship, divorce, separation, or death is a major precipitating event for depression."

Estrogen seems to indirectly set the stage for depression after a stressful event by triggering an intense hormonal response to stress. Research has shown that estrogen increases and prolongs the body's production of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol is thought to play a key role in depression.

One large study of twins showed that -- if there is a family history of depression -- an episode of major stress like divorce could double a woman's risk of developing depression, says Kenneth S. Kendler, MD, a psychiatrist and geneticist at the Medical College of Virginia.

Also, panic attacks (related to depression and anxiety) are more frequent in women over age 50. This is especially true if they had five or more stressful events in one year or if they suffered from depression, reports Jordan W. Smoller, MD, ScD, a psychiatric researcher with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Genes at Play

Genetics are another critical part of depression. Researchers like to use heart disease risk as an analogy: For people with family history, an unhealthy lifestyle will increase the risk dramatically. If you don't have family history, your body can tolerate more abuse.

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