Do baby boomers have a higher incidence rate of depression than other generations?

depressed woman
The suicide rate among middle-aged white women has risen.
©iStockphoto/Will Selarep


­A pair of unsettling statistics made for startling health headlines in 2008. At the beginning of the year, information gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 1999 to 2005 showed a 20 percent spike in suicide rates among adults between 45 and 54 years old [source: Cohen]. Age groups above and below, on the other hand, remained relatively static.


Later that year, a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine outlined a similar trend in the same time frame. According to the research, middle-aged white women had experienced a 3.9 percent increase in suicide from 1999 to 2005, with white men in the same age bracket following closely behind [source: Bower]. Across the board, a growing number of older adults, including minorities, were killing themselves.

Perhaps, some proposed, it resulted from the profound rise in prescription drug use or the decrease in post-menopausal women undergoing hormone replacement therapy [source: Cohen]. Other experts suggested that it simply reflected the natural ebb and flow of population statistics. The affected group of people fell squarely in the baby boomer generation. Born from 1946 to 1964, American baby boomers number around 78 million strong. Whenever a trend emerges from this group, it makes a noticeable impact because of its sheer size. But an upward shift in suicide rates implied a grim undercurrent. While we pay a lot of attention to baby boomer issues related to retirement, social security and elder care, had we been overlooking an underlying mental health problem?

­Baby boomers are the children of the GI generation (born from 1901 to 1924). They narrowly missed the atrocities and hardships of the Great Depression and the World Wars. Theirs was an era of prosperity, not want. They lived during a time of hope, epitomized by the Kennedy family in the White House, and a period of uncertainty during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. On the whole, boomers grew up with more economic security and broader futures than previous generations. Women gained more access to jobs, and children had more educational opportunities. Suburbia was born, and industrialization fattened the nation's coffers.

Certainly, when the first baby boomers turned 60 in 2006, the world was a far sight different than the one their parents knew. But boomers may have paid a hidden price for the progress they achieved.


The Baby Boomer Population and Depression

stressed businessman
Stressful lifestyles have contributed to baby boomers' higher incidence of depression.

­As a nation, the United States is highly depressed. Aside from hypertension, Americans suffer from major depression more than any other general medical issue, affecting more than 20 million people [source: MedlinePlus]. A combination of genetic, psychological and environmental factors contributes to depression. Among them, chronic stress is a prevalent environmental contributor to clinical depression. Experiments involving stress levels have found that the body reacts to stress by producing more proteins called kainate receptors, which are linked to depression [source: Rockefeller University].

The stress response is one explanation for a mental health cohort effect (a pattern that emerges in a specific group) among baby boomers. As a group, baby boomers are more educated and wealthier, with better access to health care than their predecessors, which would imply comparatively better mental well-being [source: Whitbourne and Willis]. Yet research has shown that the opposite is true; baby boomers are, in fact, more depressed than the GI generation or the silent generation (born 1925 to 1945). While baby boomers scheduled their lives to the limit to earn more and live more fully, many ended up with unmanageable stress and by extension, depression [source: Kapes].


When comparing depression rates in baby boomers and previous generations, we must also take into account the evolution of psychology as a respected scientific field. It wasn't until after World War II that psychology and mental health was studied empirically on a large scale. The Army, for example, began examining veterans' mental status at the turn of the century, and the World Health Organization (WHO) included mental disorders as classified medical diseases in 1949 [source: Whitbourne and Willis]. This growing acceptance of depression as a legitimate medical problem may encourage more people to seek treatment for it, thus causing a statistical increase.

The aging of the baby boomer population has also likely contributed to the trend of depression. Though depression isn't a natural part of aging, the societal appreciation of youth may lead older people to feel less valued and helpless. Though people are living longer than ever before, we also have an overwhelming number of products and procedures at our disposal to retain the physical appearance of youth.

Additionally, the population-wide incidence rate of depression continues to grow in successive generations. According to current psychological research, younger age groups experience higher levels of depression than older ones [source: Scogin]. Therefore, down the line, there's a good chance that generations X and Y will overtake baby boomers as the most depressed cohorts.



Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bower, Bruce. "Midlife Suicides Are On the Rise." ScienceNews. Oct. 21, 2005. (March 7, 2009)
  • ­Cohen, Patricia. "Midlife Suicide Rises, Puzzling Researchers." The New York Times. F­eb. 19, 2008. (March 7, 2009)
  • Kapes, Beth. "Depression and Baby Boomers: How Having It All May Be Too Much." PsychCentral. Aug. 30, 2006. (March 7, 2009)
  • MedlinePlus. "Depression." National Institutes of Health. Reviewed Feb. 23, 2009. (March 7, 2009)
  • Merrall, Susan Scarf. "Getting over getting older." Psychology Today. December 1996. (March 7, 2009)
  • Mortimer, Jeylan T. and Shanahan, Michael J. "Handbook of the Life Course." Springer 2004. (March 7, 2009)
  • Rockefeller University. "Protein Found Linking Stress And Depression." ScienceDaily Feb. 28, 2009. (March 7, 2009)­ /releases/2009/02/090225175850.htm
  • Scogin, Forest. "Depression and Suicide in Older Adults." American Psychological Association. (March 7, 2009)
  • Whitbourne, Susan Krauss and Willis, Sherry L. "The Baby Boomers Grow Up." Routledge. 2006. (March 7, 2009)