When Feeling Bad Might Do Some Good

Study: Mild depression lowers death rate for older women

WEDNESDAY, May 1, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Treading carefully, psychiatrists now report that a little unhappiness just might be good for you.

However, that's only the case if you're an older woman and it's not too much unhappiness.

A study appearing in the May issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry says that older women who report symptoms of mild depression have a significantly lower death rate than women who are not depressed and those who report more severe depression.

The study contradicts a parade of research directly linking depression to a higher rate of early death, especially among men and people who have had heart problems. The findings here don't apply to older men -- something that study author Dr. Dan G. Blazer says he can't explain.

He does speculate.

"We know that women are more likely to report symptoms of depression," says Blazer, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Duke University Medical Center. "When men say they are depressed, they may not express depression until it becomes more severe."

That's not the only puzzling result Blazer finds in the study, in which more than 4,000 men and women aged 65 and older were interviewed about their health, mental and physical, every three years by researchers at Duke's Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development. He can't understand why women who checked off six to eight symptoms on a standard scale of depression were 60 percent less likely to die than women who scored much higher or lower on the scale.

Again, he can speculate.

"It could be that if you have something less than severe depression, you are more cautious and less likely to exhibit risk-taking activity in several health behaviors," Blazer says.

The study also cites the work of Dr. Randolph M. Nesse, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Michigan, who says that feeling bad can be a successful way of coping with the inevitable difficulties of life.

"It's hard to see how sadness can be useful," Nesse says. "But low mood can be useful in a situation of trying to reach an unreachable goal. It can make you stop and review your strategy, and stop trying to reach that goal. On the other hand, when a person in a state of low mood from pursuing an unreachable goal can't give up that goal, then the mood becomes worse and worse, and becomes true depression."

True depression is "genuinely a brain disease that requires treatment," says Nesse, which is why he prefers to use the term "low mood" to describe Blazer's finding.

The study could help people understand their moods better, Blazer says.

"It is expected by many people that they should never feel down at all," he says. "This finding may broaden the perspective on what is normal."

What To Do

"People who are significantly depressed need to get help," Blazer says.

How do you tell?

"When you are feeling bad enough for other people to tell you that you are not being productive enough," Nesse says.

You can learn about the symptoms and treatment of depression from the National Institute of Mental Health, which has a separate page on depression and women.

SOURCES: Dan G. Blazer, M.D., professor, psychiatry and behavioral science, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; Randolph M. Nesse, professor, psychiatry and psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; May/June 2002 American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry
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