As part of the National Institute of Mental Health-Clinical Research Branch Collaborative Program on the Psychobiology of Depression Clinical Study, 2,289 relatives of 523 probands with affective disorder were interviewed with the Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia and diagnosed for major depressive disorder by the Research Diagnostic Criteria. Data were analyzed using life-table and survival methods. The findings suggest a progressive increase in rates of depression in successive birth cohorts through the 20th century and an earlier age at onset of depression in each birth cohort. A predominance of female depressives was found in all birth cohorts but the magnitude of female-male differences fluctuated over the decades. The existence of these trends is reported to stimulate further research. These findings are discussed in terms of possible gene-environment interactions. However, no conclusive causal inferences can be drawn pending further investigation.