What are some risk factors for depression?

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Women are twice as likely as men to experience depression, says Lino Linares, DO, from Medical Center of Trinity. Learn who else is at risk and why by watching this short video.
Celeste Robb-Nicholson
Internal Medicine
Risk factors for depression include the following:
  • a family history of depression, particularly in first-degree relatives
  • a parent who has committed suicide
  • a personal history of substance abuse, eating disorders, or a family history of such disorders
  • unresolved grief over a major life loss
  • unresolved anger
We know depression is caused by changes in brain chemistry. But we don't know what triggers these changes in the first place. Still, studies do show that several factors seem to make a person more likely to develop depression:
  • A family history of depression
  • An unhappy event, such as a death or divorce
  • Certain personality traits or patterns of thinking
  • Long-term use of some medications, or alcohol or drug abuse
While these factors may raise your chance of depression, depression also happens to people who have none of them and "no reason" to feel down. The onset of depression is highly individual and often unpredictable.
There are a number of possible influences that may increase one's risk for depression. These may include: having a biologic relative with depression, being female, a past personal history of depression, having a serious illness, a past history of childhood emotional or physical trauma, having few friends or other personal relationships, recent pregnancy (postpartum depression), a history of drug or alcohol abuse, experiencing a stressful life event such as divorce or death of a loved one, or having family members or friends that suffer from depression.
Worldwide, there are certain risk factors that make some more likely to get depression than others:
  • Gender. Depression is two to three times more common in women, although a few studies, particularly from Africa have not shown this.
  • Economic disadvantages, that is, poverty.
  • Social disadvantages, such as low education.
  • Genetics. If you have someone in your immediate family with the disorder, you are two to three times more likely to develop depression at some point in your life.
  • Exposure to violence.
  • Being separated or divorced, in most countries, especially for men.
  • Other chronic illness.
There are numerous factors that increase your risk of depression, most significantly your sex; women are nearly twice as likely as men to experience depression. If you have close family members who have experienced depression it may indicate a hereditary risk factor. Pregnancy will increase the risk for some women, resulting in postpartum depression. Having a serious illness such as heart disease or cancer can increase your risk, as will certain medicines. Social isolation and traumatic life events, as well as alcohol and drug abuse, can all increase your risk for depression, too.
Highly plausible risk factors for depression include:

Age: The risk of dysthymia (chronic depression) increases with age until age 65, at which time there is a marked decrease.

Culture: Although rates of dysthymia generally are similar across cultures, this finding is not universal. There is some evidence to suggest that rates of depressive symptoms and patterns of gender differences vary across cultures, especially when developed and developing countries are compared. The conceptualization, assessment and diagnosis of depression and dysthymia in terms that are universally acceptable continue to pose a problem in cross-cultural comparisons.

Female Gender: A higher rate of depressive symptoms in females is one of the most robust findings in depression research. Although rates vary, a ratio of 2 : 1 for both major depression and dysthymic disorder is commonly accepted.

Genetics: A link has been established between genetics and the development of depression. Potential genetic markers have been identified that are associated with the development of mood disorders.

Marital Status: Individuals who are divorced or separated show higher rates of depressive symptoms compared to those who are married or never have been married.

Poor Mental Health: Having mild-to-moderate depression (dysthymia) increases the likelihood of major depression.

Poor Physical Health: High rates of depression are related to poor health in general, as well as to specific illnesses such as cancer, hypothyroidism and Cushing's syndrome.

Substance Use or Abuse: Depression often co-occurs with substance abuse. The prevalence of dual diagnosis (also known as comorbidity) between dysthymia and substance abuse is approximately 18%.

Continue Learning about Depression Causes & Risks

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.