Study: Migraines May Raise the Risk of Depression in Women

A new study confirms what researchers have long believed: migraine headaches and depression often appear together.

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As if having migraine headaches weren’t enough of a burden, a new study finds that women with migraines are also more likely to develop depression — about 40% more likely than women who have no history of the headaches.

The study found that even women whose migraines had ceased in the previous year had a higher risk of becoming depressed than migraine-free women.

For the study, researchers led by Dr. Tobias Kurth, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, analyzed data on 36,154 women involved in the ongoing Women’s Health Study. None of the participants had depression at the start of the study, and 6,456 were currently experiencing migraines or had in the past.

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Over an average of 14 years of follow-up, 3,971 women developed depression. Women who had ever had a migraine were 36% more likely to become depressed than women who had no migraine history. Women who had suffered migraines in the past, but in the previous year, were 41% more likely.

The risk of depression was the same whether women had migraines with aura — visual disturbances such as flashing lights, zigzag lines or a temporary loss of vision, which precedes about a quarter of migraines — or without.

The study, which will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in New Orleans in April, is one of the first large studies to examine the association between migraine and the development of depression over time.

“We hope our findings will encourage doctors to speak to their migraine patients about the risk of depression and potential ways to prevent depression,” said Kurth in a statement.

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Although experts have long suspected a link between migraine and depression, it’s not clear what underlies the association. It’s possible that the frequent pain of headaches lowers quality of life enough to cause depression, but some researchers think there may be underlying biological explanations. One 2010 study that surveyed 977 members of a single extended family in the Netherlands suggested that genes might be a culprit, finding that about 25% of family members with migraines were depressed compared with 12% of relatives without migraines.

Overall, women have it rough when it comes to migraines. About 29.5 million Americans experience migraines and three-quarters are women, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.

Migraine treatment comes in many forms, though there is no specific cure. The goal is try to identify migraine triggers and avoid them. If you feel a headache coming on, treat it immediately: take migraine medicine as soon as possible, drink fluids and lie in a dark, quiet room.

MORE: A Genetic Link Between Migraines and Depression?

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