WEDNESDAY, Feb. 22, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- As if the debilitating headaches weren't bad enough, women who get migraines or have had them in the past are at increased risk for depression, a new study suggests.
Migraines are intense, throbbing headaches often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light or sound. They are three times more common in women than in men.
The study, by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, suggests that women with any history of migraines were about 40 percent more likely to develop depression than women without a similar history.
"We believe the most important aspect of our study is that migraine patients and their physicians should keep this potential link in mind," said senior study author Dr. Tobias Kurth, a neuroepidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Kurth noted that doctors who treat patients who have migraines might consider asking some specific questions about depression.
The researchers analyzed data from more than 36,000 participants in the U.S. Women's Health Study who did not have depression and had answered questions about their migraine history. The women, aged 45 or older, were categorized either as having active migraine with aura (visual disturbances such as flashing lights or temporary loss of vision); active migraine without aura; prior history of migraine; or no history of migraine. The women also provided information about any depression diagnoses during the study's follow-up period.
Kurth and his colleagues found that more than 6,400 of the women had current or past migraines, and that during an average 14 years of follow-up, nearly 4,000 developed depression.
Women with any history of migraines were 36 percent more likely to develop depression than women with no history of the headaches, and there was no difference between migraines with aura and migraines without aura. The researchers also found that women with only a past history of migraine had 1.41 times the risk of developing depression.
Although the results suggest a link between migraines and depression, they do not show cause and effect.
Kurth said further research is necessary to determine why migraines might increase the risk of depression. "There is not really an easy answer," he said, adding that future studies might look at whether there is a specific common biological mechanism linking both diseases.
Dr. Richard Lipton, vice chair of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City, applauded the research.
"This is a very strong study because of the cohort design, the large sample and the long-term follow-up," he said.
Lipton noted several study limitations, however. The results don't apply to men or to younger women, he said, and it is possible the number of women with depression was even greater, since the diagnosis was based on self-reporting.
The study is scheduled for presentation at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in New Orleans in April. Funding was provided by the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Cancer Institute.
Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
To learn more about migraines, visit the National Headache Foundation.