Depression affects men and women differently

When women were depressed and their sensitivities dulled, their partners also became less empathic. When women are depressed, the relationship suffers more.

May 15, 2011 03:29
4 minute read.

teenager sad shame depression 311. (photo credit: Nir Keidar)


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Depression can erode all intimate relationships; a depressed person can be withdrawn, needy or hostile. The mental condition also impairs what psychologists call “empathic accuracy” – and that can exacerbate alienation, depression and the cycle by which they feed each other.

But Israeli researchers have found that it can affect one gender differently than the other.

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Three Israeli researchers – Reuma Gadassi and Nilly Mor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Eshkol Rafaeli at Bar-Ilan University – wanted to better understand these dynamics in relationships, particularly the role of gender. Their study has been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study revealed a surprising dynamic: “It’s called the partner effect,” said Gadassi, a psychology graduate student. She explained that “women’s depression affects their own accuracy. But it also affected their partner’s accuracy”– in both cases, negatively. Fifty heterosexual couples – some married, some cohabiting for an average of about five years – participated in the study. First, a questionnaire assessed their levels of depression. Then, their interpersonal perceptions were tested both in the lab and in daily life. In the lab, the couples were videotaped during a 12-minute conversation in which one sought help from the other.

Halfway through, they switched roles – the requester of help became the helper.

Afterwards, the individuals watched the tapes and wrote about their own thoughts and feelings and those of their partners. The reports were assessed for similarities and differences between each person’s perceptions and the other’s self-descriptions.

In the second portion, the participants made daily diary entries for three weeks, rating a list of negative and positive moods and feelings about the relationship, both their own and their partner’s, on a five-point scale.

These entries were also assessed for “empathic accuracy.”

From both tests, the researchers found that the more depressed the woman was, the less accurately she inferred her partner’s feelings.

In the daily-life portion, the specificity of depression’s effect to negative feelings was revealed. Men’s own depression did not affect their empathic accuracy, although that is not to suggest that his blues would have no impact on the relationship, just “a different one,” says Gadassi. It was in the daily diaries that the most surprising finding emerged: When women were depressed and their sensitivities dulled, their partners also became less empathic. When women are depressed, the relationship suffers more. After all, mutual understanding is the bedrock of intimacy.

The study has important implications, says Gadassi. It tells us “you can’t understand depression without taking account of gender.” The findings should be implemented in treatment, as “bringing only the depressed woman into therapy is not enough,” she says. “You really have to have both partners in the room.”

REGULAR SHOPPING MAY EXTEND LIFE Many people say they feel good after shopping – but can regular “retail therapy” make people live longer? Shopping centers will be happy to learn about the report in the latest Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on older people in Taiwan. Those who shop regularly – especially men – benefit by living longer, according to new research.

An analysis of Taiwan’s Elderly Nutrition and Health Survey, which studied 1,850 Taiwanese aged 65 and over through questionnaires on their education, ethnicity, financial and employment status, lifestyle and other factors. They were also asked how often they went shopping, with with options ranging from “never” to “every day.”The researchers then tracked how long each participant lived by linking individuals to national death registration data between 1999 and 2008.

Nearly half (48 percent) of the participants never or infrequently shopped during the week, and around one in four (22%) shopped between two and four times. A further 17% shopped every day, and the remainder shopped just once a week. Almost two-thirds of respondents were under 75.

Most had a healthy lifestyle, and three out of four were financially self sufficient. Sixty percent had chronic medical conditions.

Those who went shopping more than once a week tended to be at the younger end of the age spectrum, and male. They also tended to have better physical and mental health, take regular exercise and have a network of dinner companions. The clear conclusion was that those who shopped daily lived longer than those who shopped less frequently.

The authors acknowledge that shopping could be a surrogate for good health to begin with, but suggest that shopping itself may improve health by ensuring a good supply of food, for example. Frequent shopping among the elderly may not always be about buying things, but about seeking companionship or taking exercise, which is easier to do than more formal exercise, they say. The conventional view focuses on physical activity, but engaging in social and economic activities in later life may also contribute to better health, they add.

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