The cliché, “You’re only as old as you think you are,” may actually contain a kernel of truth, according to a group of researchers from the Netherlands who found that people with depression may age more rapidly than their non-depressed peers.
Scientists analyzed the DNA cell structures of over 2,400 women: some currently suffering from depression, some who’d never had depression and some who’d battled the disorder in the past. They found that people whose lives had been touched by depression had far more pronounced signs of cell aging—specifically in the form of shorter telomeres, special sequences of DNA that appear on the end of chromosomes.
Study authors say their findings provide “convincing evidence that depression is associated with several years of biological aging, especially among those with the most severe and chronic symptoms.”
What they don’t know is whether interventions such as talk-therapy and antidepressant medications could potentially reverse or halt this hyper-aging process in depressed individuals.
The wide-ranging health effects of depression
Full-blown depression doesn’t just affect the mind—its impact on a person’s physical health can be dramatic as well. Previous research has linked major depression with an increased risk of cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes and dementia. Some of this increased risk is due to the symptoms of depression: poor eating habits, lack of motivation to engage in activities (both social and physical), and disrupted sleep patterns. The mental condition has also been named as a contributor to immune system dysfunction, as well as a trigger for out-of-control inflammation.
How to find help
Depression is a prevalent problem in the developed world. Around 19 million Americans have some form of the disorder, according to the most current figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Many factors contribute to a person’s risk for developing depression. Genetics, life experiences, chemical imbalances in the brain and lifestyle habits are all thought to play a role, which is why there’s no scientifically-proven way to prevent the condition.
The best thing to do is try to identify and treat depression as soon as possible.
Signs of depression vary from person to person, but commonly include: social withdrawal, trouble concentrating, feeling helpless or worthless and—in extreme cases—thoughts of suicide. Anytime these indicators last for more than a few weeks, it may be time to seek outside help.
If you feel that you, or someone you love, is suffering from depression, the best thing to do is to seek professional medical attention. A licensed mental health practitioner can determine if the symptoms are truly being caused by depression or a different condition, and can recommend a treatment plan based on a person’s individual needs and preferences.