Pregnancy-Linked Depression Tied to Shorter Life Spans for Women

Women are far more likely to suffer an early death if they develop depression during or after pregnancy, a new Swedish study has found.

Women who developed what’s known as “perinatal” depression were generally twice as likely to die as women who didn’t experience the mood disorder, researchers reported Jan. 10 in the BMJ .

They also are six times more likely to commit suicide than women without this form of depression, researchers found.

The death risk tied to pregnancy-related depression peaks in the month after a woman is diagnosed with the disorder, but it can remain elevated nearly two decades later, results show.

“I believe that our study clearly shows that these women have an elevated mortality risk, and that this is an extremely important issue,” said study co-author Qing Shen , an affiliated researcher at the Karolinska Institute.

Perinatal depression is fairly common, affecting 10% to 20% of all pregnant women, the researchers said in background notes.

For the study, researchers analyzed data on more than 86,500 Swedish women diagnosed with perinatal depression, which can occur either during pregnancy or up to a year following childbirth.

Six to eight weeks after childbirth, all Swedish women are asked to complete a screening tool used to detect signs of depression.

The research team compared those females to more than 865,000 women of the same age who had given birth in the same year, between 2001 and 2018, but hadn’t developed depression associated with their pregnancy.

The death risk was highest for women diagnosed with depression after childbirth, corroborating the findings of previous studies of postpartum depression, researchers found.

But the new study also found an elevated death risk in women who develop depression during pregnancy, which has not been studied as much, the researchers noted.

The risk was the same whether or not a woman had psychiatric problems prior to pregnancy, results show.

“Our recommendation is therefore not to discontinue effective psychiatric treatment during pregnancy,” Shen said in a Karolinska news release.

Women were more likely to be diagnosed with perinatal depression if they had less education or lower incomes, researchers found.

“One hypothesis is that these women seek help differently or were offered screening service postpartum not to the same extent, which means that their depression develops and is worse once it has been detected,” said senior researcher Donghao Lu , an assistant professor at Karolinska. “Our view is that these women are particularly vulnerable and should be the focus of future interventions.”

The good news is there already are good tools for detecting and treating pregnancy-related depression, Lu said. They just need to be used.

“We need to stress how important it is for all pregnant women are offered screening, both postpartum and antepartum, and provided necessary, evidence-based care and support,” Lu said.

More information

The National Institute of Mental Health has more about perinatal depression .

SOURCE: Karolinska Institute, news release, Jan. 10, 2024