There has been much speculation about modern environments causing an epidemic of depression. This review aims to (1) determine whether depression rates have increased and (2) review evidence for possible explanations. While available data indicate rising prevalence and an increased lifetime risk for younger cohorts, strong conclusions cannot be drawn due to conflicting results and methodological flaws. There are numerous potential explanations for changing rates of depression. Cross-cultural studies can be useful for identifying likely culprits. General and specific characteristics of modernization correlate with higher risk. A positive correlation between a country's GDP per capita, as a quantitative measure of modernization, and lifetime risk of a mood disorder trended toward significance (p=0.06). Mental and physical well-being are intimately related. The growing burden of chronic diseases, which arise from an evolutionary mismatch between past human environments and modern-day living, may be central to rising rates of depression. Declining social capital and greater inequality and loneliness are candidate mediators of a depressiogenic social milieu. Modern populations are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially-isolated. These changes in lifestyle each contribute to poor physical health and affect the incidence and treatment of depression. The review ends with a call for future research and policy interventions to address this public health crisis.
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