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Depression May Blur Memory of Aches and Pains

TUESDAY Nov. 3, 2009 -- Depressed people tend to report more physical symptoms than they actually experience, a new study finds.

The study involved 109 women who completed questionnaires designed to assess their levels of neuroticism and depression. For the next three weeks, they kept daily records of whether they felt any of 15 common physical symptoms, including aches and pains, gastrointestinal problems and upper-respiratory issues.

At the end of the three-week period, the women were asked to recall how often they'd experienced each symptom. Those who had a higher depression score at the start of the study were more likely to overstate the frequency of their symptoms.

"People who felt depressed made the most errors when asked to remember their physical symptoms," psychologist Jerry Suls, a professor and collegiate fellow at the University of Iowa said in a university news release. "They tended to exaggerate their experience."

It's long been believed that a high level of neuroticism -- a general disposition that includes irritability, sadness, anxiety and fear -- is associated with exaggerated reporting of physical symptoms. But the study suggests that a more likely reason is depression.

"For 30 years, the hypothesis has been that neuroticism is behind inflated reports of symptoms," Suls said. "We're saying no -- depression appears to be the big player. We discovered that people high in neuroticism but low in depression are not likely to mis-remember symptoms."

The findings, published online Oct. 15 in Psychosomatic Medicine, are important, Suls said, because symptoms reported by patients play a major role in doctors' diagnosis and treatment decisions.

"Depressed individuals and their physicians shouldn't discount common symptoms because they can indicate serious problems," he said. "However, since we now know that depressed individuals tend to over-remember the frequency of symptoms, it wouldn't hurt to encourage patients to write down their symptoms as they're happening. That way the patient and doctor have an accurate record of what has been going on, rather than relying on memory."

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about depression.

Posted: November 2009


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