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Mary's Brain vs. Harry's Brain

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

Liberated From What?

Some researchers are convinced, however, that when women's roles in society improved, their odds of depression decreased.

While genetics may play some role, women's self-confidence and self-esteem are at the heart of depression, says Ronald C. Kessler, PhD, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and author of several major depression studies.

In the 1950s and 1960s, studies showed that women had three times the rate of clinical depression as men. Since then, that number has steadily decreased -- today's women have 1.7 times the rate of depression, he tells WebMD.

"As gender roles in society have grown similar, we've seen the gap decrease," says Kessler, who is heading a nationwide study of gender-related depression patterns in adolescents. "That's not to say that 1.7 times risk isn't genetic."

"The gender difference in depression tends to emerge in mid-puberty," he says. "Many people think that it's linked to the menstrual cycle. But there are a lot of things that happen at puberty, including breast budding and girls getting attention from older boys."

One large nationwide study showed that girls' rates of clinical depression increased when they graduated from elementary school to middle school or high school - regardless what their age was, says Kessler.

"It had nothing to do with puberty or hormones. When young girls went to school with older boys, that's when their self-esteem took a nosedive."

Published March 22, 2004.

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