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Open Access Research article

Accumulation of major depressive episodes over time in a prospective study indicates that retrospectively assessed lifetime prevalence estimates are too low

Scott B Patten

Author Affiliations

Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

BMC Psychiatry 2009, 9:19  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-9-19

Published: 8 May 2009



Most epidemiologic studies concerned with Major Depressive Disorder have employed cross-sectional study designs. Assessment of lifetime prevalence in such studies depends on recall of past depressive episodes. Such studies may underestimate lifetime prevalence because of incomplete recall of past episodes (recall bias). An opportunity to evaluate this issue arises with a prospective Canadian study called the National Population Health Survey (NPHS).


The NPHS is a longitudinal study that has followed a community sample representative of household residents since 1994. Follow-up interviews have been completed every two years and have incorporated the Composite International Diagnostic Interview short form for major depression. Data are currently available for seven such interview cycles spanning the time frame 1994 to 2006. In this study, cumulative prevalence was calculated by determining the proportion of respondents who had one or more major depressive episodes during this follow-up interval.


The annual prevalence of MDD ranged between 4% and 5% of the population during each assessment, consistent with existing literature. However, 19.7% of the population had at least one major depressive episode during follow-up. This included 24.2% of women and 14.2% of men. These estimates are nearly twice as high as the lifetime prevalence of major depressive episodes reported by cross-sectional studies during same time interval.


In this study, prospectively observed cumulative prevalence over a relatively brief interval of time exceeded lifetime prevalence estimates by a considerable extent. This supports the idea that lifetime prevalence estimates are vulnerable to recall bias and that existing estimates are too low for this reason.