Social support protects women against depression more than men

Researchers at Virginia Commnwealth University have found that women who feel more supported and cared for by their friends, family and children have a lower risk for developing depression than men, suggesting gender differences in the pathways leading to depression.
The study, published in the February issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, examined about 1,000 adult, opposite-sex twins pairs. Overall, the females reported higher levels of social support than their brothers. They were also more sensitive than men to the depressing effects of little social support.
“In women, social support was a robust predictor of risk for depression," said Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and human genetics in VCU’s School of Medicine and lead author on the study. "Women who saw themselves as more loved and cared for and objectively well integrated in positive social groups were well protected against later episodes of major depression.

“However, among the men we found virtually no effect," he said. "In this large sample, we could find no relationship in men between their levels of social support and their risk for depression.

“These findings suggest that men may be more ‘immune’ or less sensitive to aspects of their social environment with respect to their risk for depression," Kendler said.

The researchers initially interviewd the twins between 1993 and 1996. A follow-up interview was conducted between 1994 and 1998. The participants ranged in age from 21 to 58 years old.

Kendler chose to study opposite-sex twins because that controls for many factors thought to influence depression such as biological factors during fetal development and the family life during childhood. Other factors that may differ between men and women were ruled out, Kendler said.

Kendler said these results are consistent with previous studies suggesting that women tend to value social relationships more than men, as well as tending to seek emotional support more often.

“While the impact of low social support on risk for major depression appears to be less pronounced in men than in women, males may be more sensitive to the adverse health effects of social isolation than are females,” he added.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.