Effects Of Long-Term Depression
Updated May 23, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Long-term depression can have some serious side effects for anyone, physically, emotionally, socially and economically. Sometimes even with treating depression can last for many months or years. The longer depression lasts, the more likely it will be that you will suffer from some of these effects of long-term depression.
What Is Long-Term Depression?
There are several diagnoses that may be given for long-term depression. The diagnosis you receive for your long-term depression will depend upon how long you have had depression and the symptoms of depression that you present with. There are four main types of long-term depression.
Dysthymia, also called persistent depressive disorder, is depression that lasts for two years or more even with treatment. With dysthymia, symptoms of depression may not be as severe as with major depressive disorder, but they are consistently present for a long period regardless of treatment.
Double depression is defined as a bout of major depressive disorder soon after a diagnosis of dysthymia. In other words, with double depression, you have existing depression that is milder and long term and move into meeting criteria for diagnosis with more severe symptoms.
Chronic Major Depressive Disorder
Major depressive disorder is clinical depression that lasts for at least two weeks. For some people, major depression can last much longer than two weeks. Some people experience long-term depression that is extremely debilitating and can cause major problems for them in their lives. This is the most common form of long-term depression that leads to the most serious effects.
Depression is a very treatable illness. However, for many people, relapses into major depression or lingering mild depressive symptoms can occur even after the depression is "in remission." For many people, partial recovery may allow them to function better in society and the workplace, but it may not be enough of a recovery to stop the effects of long-term depression.
Effects On The Brain
There are many ways that long-term depression affects the brain. It is commonly believed that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. However, this chemical imbalance, or side effects from the long-term depression itself, can cause additional changes to the brain and how it functions. Much research has been done as to how long-term depression affects the brain.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, among other things. One of the biggest problems for people with long-term depression is memory loss and short-term memory problems. This is because of the chemicals that are produced in the hippocampus and how they affect its function.
One of the chemicals that is produced in the hippocampus is cortisol. More cortisol is produced in times of physical or mental stress, such as the stress of depression. This excess cortisol in the hippocampus causes a slowing down of the production of new neurons and can cause neurons in the hippocampus to shrink. This is what leads to memory problems.
This is the part of the brain responsible for emotional responses. The excess production of cortisol during long-term depression affects this part of the brain as well. The result is that the amygdala becomes enlarged, which can lead to sleep disturbances and changes in activity. It can also affect other parts of the brain and the production of other hormones, which can cause further problems.
The prefrontal cortex also shrinks when there is an overproduction of cortisol. When the prefrontal cortex shrinks, it causes problems with being able to form new memories, being able to make decisions, or being able to regulate emotions.
Risks Of Long-Term Depression
Some additional risks come with long-term depression that has little to do with brain changes or other physical effects of the illness. Often when someone is depressed for a long period, these risks become more and more acute. The longer one suffers from the illness, the higher the risk of these things happening.
Risk Of Suicide
Every year about 13 out of every 100,000 people commit suicide. Many more people make an attempt, but these numbers are not well known or tracked. The important thing to realize is that suicidal thoughts and behaviors increase significantly the longer depression lasts.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, it is important that you immediately contact a therapist or other professional help. There are ways to reduce the symptoms of depression at least. If treatments such as medications and psychotherapy have not worked to reduce your symptoms, other inpatient treatments are available.
Another common risk for people with long-term depression is substance abuse. Sometimes when medications and therapy do not work, people turn to illegal drugs or alcohol to try to make themselves feel better. They might try a drug or getting drunk to see if it will reduce their depression symptoms. Then, if it works once, they will soon become reliant on the substance for continued relief.
However, substance abuse comes with its own physical and mental problems. Substance abuse can cause severe physical limitations and illnesses, even leading up to death. It is important that if you have depression, you do not try to self-medicate, but instead work to find other options with your therapist and psychiatrist.
Effects Of Long-Term Depression On Physical Health
The effects of long-term depression on physical health are perhaps the ones that are not often considered by those with depression. When you have depression for a long period, your mind is obsessed with the thoughts and emotions that your depression is sponsoring.
There are several different potential physical effects of long-term depression. The longer you suffer from depression, the more at risk you are for developing these problems. Of course, not everyone will have the same effects.
One of the things that researchers have found is that people with long-term depression are at risk for cardiovascular deterioration. People who are depressed for a long period are at higher risk for heart attack. Also, once a heart attack or other heart problem has arisen, those with major depression find it much more difficult to recover.
Depression can often cause changes in appetite. You may find it difficult to eat anything at all, or you may find that you are eating too much of the wrong foods. If you eat nothing but junk food, or if you don't eat much at all, it can be very easy to become malnourished over time. The longer the depressive symptoms and appetite changes last, the more at risk you are for becoming malnourished.
Appetite changes from depression can also cause obesity. Long-term depression can cause inadequate eating behaviors that can cause you to gain a large amount of weight over time. Also, long-term use of antidepressants can also cause weight gain. Many doctors suggest that those suffering from depression exercise regularly, not just to improve mood but also to counteract the risk of obesity.
Socioeconomic Effects Of Long-Term Depression
There are a few effects of long-term depression that affect your way of life. These social and economic effects of long-term depression are frequently common in people who suffer from depression for many months or years. The longer you suffer from depression, the more likely it will be that you will have these types of problems.
Many, many people who have long-term depression become socially isolated. When you are depressed, you lose interest in activities and things that you once enjoyed. When you have this lack of interest, combined with a lack of energy, you stop going out to social engagements and activities. You may tire of talking to your friends and having them ask you what is wrong, and so cut yourself off from them thinking that you are doing them a favor. The longer depression goes on without treatment, the more likely you are to experience social isolation.
Long-term depression can also affect your finances in the way of affecting your workplace performance. Many studies have been done showing that workplace performance is often decreased significantly when a patient is severely depressed, and often goes up with just a few weeks of treatment. When your workplace performance suffers, or you are unable to handle the stress and pressure of work and stay home, you are putting your livelihood at risk. You may also be missing hours, which means missing money, which leads to financial stress that can simply worsen depression.
If you have been suffering from depression for a long time without relief, contact a therapist or psychiatrist today to discuss treatment options. Even long-term depression is very treatable. You may not be able to relieve symptoms with medication and psychotherapy completely, but there are many treatment options available. Also, even lessening your depressive symptoms so that they go from severe to mild can make a big difference in how long-term depression affects your life.