In a new study, researchers have found a set of factors that could help prevent depression in adults. They named social connection as the strongest protective factor for depression and suggested that reducing sedentary activities such as TV watching and daytime napping could also help lower the risk of depression.
The research was conducted by a team from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, but until now researchers have focused on only a handful of risk and protective factors, often in just one or two domains.
This study provides the most comprehensive picture to date of modifiable factors that could impact depression risk. To that end, researchers took a two-stage approach.
The first stage drew on a database of over 100,000 participants in the UK Biobank to systematically scan a wide range of modifiable factors that might be linked to the risk of depression, including social interaction, media use, sleep patterns, diet, physical activity, and environmental exposures.
The second stage took the strongest modifiable candidates to examine which factors may have a causal relationship to depression risk.
This two-stage approach allowed the researchers to narrow the field to a smaller set of promising and potentially causal targets for depression.
The team found an important protective effect of social connection and social cohesion.
These factors are more relevant now than ever at a time of social distancing and separation from friends and family.
The protective effects of social connection were present even for individuals who were at higher risk for depression as a result of genetic vulnerability or early life trauma.
On the other hand, factors linked to depression risk included time spent watching TV, though the authors note that additional research is needed to determine if that risk was due to media exposure per se or whether time in front of the TV was a proxy for being sedentary.
Perhaps more surprising, the tendency for daytime napping and regular use of multivitamins appeared to be linked to depression risk, though more research is needed to determine how these might contribute.
The study demonstrates an important new approach for evaluating a wide range of modifiable factors and using this evidence to prioritize targets for preventive interventions for depression.
One author of the study is Karmel Choi, Ph.D., an investigator in the Department of Psychiatry and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.