A new study finds there may be cause to think that depression can make people age faster on a cellular level. With rising depression and anxiety diagnosis rates, is this study cause for alarm?
The study, published this month in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, points to evidence that people who have experienced a major depressive disorder (MDD) show biological signs of aging faster than those who have not experienced this kind of mood problem.
This adds to a growing body of evidence that people who suffer MDD tend to be at higher risk of certain age-related health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
Until now, it has been unclear whether that risk is due to the disorder making people more prone to unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as alcohol abuse, poor diets and inactivity. This latest study, however, shows that MDD takes its toll on our bodies even in absence of lifestyle factors.
Why Might Depression Be Making us Age Faster?
Doctor Josine Verhoeven, of the VU University Medical Center in the Netherlands, together with a team of US researchers, recruited a total of 2,407 people for this study: 1,095 patients who at the time were suffering MDD, 802 people who were classed as having recovered from MDD, and 510 healthy individuals who had never had an MDD episode.
The team studied DNA samples from all the study participants. Researchers were particularly interested in looking at the structures of the cells. That’s because the age of cells can be guessed at by looking at the length of the “cap” on the end of our chromosomes known as telomeres. These “caps” do the very important job of stopping the loss of vital genetic information, but as cells divide, the telomeres get shorter and shorter.
What the researchers found after adjusting for physical age and lifestyle was that those participants who suffered MDD had shorter telomeres, whether they were currently suffering from MDD or had recovered. MDD appears to age us at a cellular level, and by several years.
It’s unclear precisely why this might be, but the researchers speculate that this is the reaction to the severe stress that MDD puts the body under.
“This large-scale study provides convincing evidence that depression is associated with several years of biological aging, especially among those with the most severe and chronic symptoms,” the researchers are quoted as saying.
Drawing a Distinction: Biological Age and Physical Age
As with all scientific studies, it’s important to put these findings into perspective.
For one thing, cellular aging and physical age do not necessarily equate to the same thing, so this study does not prove that cellular aging necessarily leads to physical aging and age-associated health problems.
The research did find that these symptoms were most pronounced in those who had suffered MDD for longer. It’s also important to point out that, as yet, there is no evidence that mild to moderate depressive episodes can have a major impact on telomere length. As such, even with rising numbers of people being diagnosed with mood disorders, we shouldn’t expect a population that will find itself facing age-related diseases much earlier than their physical age would predict.
There is also another important question the study could not answer, and that was whether this cellular aging can be reversed. That will need to be the focus of future studies.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression, and depression is the leading cause of disability around the globe.
There is evidence to show that the numbers of people being diagnosed with depression and mood disorders is rising beyond what would be expected relative to population increase. The reason for this might partly be explained by better and more sensitive health checks, but there is the fear that more children and teenagers in particular are suffering due to a variety of factors, including pervasive bullying.
Shedding a Light on Depression Can Help
There are a variety of treatments for depression ranging from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for mild to moderate depression, to anti-depressants for moderate and major depressive episodes. Recent meta-analyses also suggest that so-called Bright Light Therapy can be effective in treating all kinds of depression and not solely Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), offering a vital alternative to those who do not want to negotiate the potential side-effects of anti-depressants, such as pregnant or breastfeeding women.
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