The Tale of the Telomeres
If you ever get depressed, you will age much faster. Or at least that’s what some recent articles proclaim.
The latest – a study from Amsterdam of 2400 people and their genes – looked at their telomeres, the “buffers” of DNA sequences at the end of chromosomes which prevent them from making mistakes during cell division. As time goes on and the cell divides and divides again, your telomeres get smaller. That is why some researchers consider them a “marker” of aging.
What Did the Study Show?
That telomeres of people who were depressed were on average about 80 base pairs shorter than those who had never been depressed. And the more depressive episodes, the shorter the telomeres. By this study’s calculation, one year of life shortens telomeres by about 14 base pairs. On this basis, depression means 5-6 years of “aging.”
Do Telomeres Really Predict Aging?
Much like any risk factor, telomeres are markers, correlates and not predictors. Though the authors supposedly controlled for diabetes, tobacco use, diet and the usual suspects, there are literally hundreds of variables they can’t control for. And looking at “risk factors” can appear silly when you have significant “hard” end points – like death and heart disease – that you can effectively and simply track.
What Does Depression Do To Health?
A lot of harm. George Winokur of the University of Iowa long studied the “Iowa 500”, patients from that state who had extensive psychiatric notes and observations. Followed up over decades, people who got depressed had far more heart disease, stroke, angina, and even cancer.
They died a lot faster than if they did not have depression. Yet the question remained – why?
Many older researchers argued that depressed patients did not “take care of themselves.” They smoked more (that made sense – cigarettes have tiny amounts of monoamine oxidate inhibitors, one of the first effective antidepressants); they drank more; they exercised less; they had more job and family problems; they didn’t “watch” their diets.
So for years the increased health risks of depression were ascribed to what depressed people did.
The telomere study is one of a long line that argues that depression has a lot of biological effects on people beyond whether they “behave badly” or don’t. The stress of depression is particularly deleterious to the heart, but also increases the risk of dementia.
What Causes Depression?
The causes number in the hundreds – just as they do for heart disease. That’s also a polite way of observing that the “cause” of depression is not well understood.
People can become depressed on the breaking up a relationship; fracturing a leg; losing a job; or for absolutely no reason that anyone can discover.
Similarly, depression effects dozens of different symptoms, ranging from frequent thoughts of suicide, to losing interest in food, to not being able to sleep.
What does seem to happen in depression – biologically – is a failure for the organism to adjust and adapt. Basic restorative functions stop or stall.
The body fails to regenerate properly – in multiple spheres. Which also gives people clues on how to treat it properly.
What Does the Telomere Study Say About Depression Treatment?
Risk factors are markers – no more and sometimes less. Time spent in bed is a “marker” for mortality. About 85% of Americans die in bed.
That certainly doesn’t mean beds killed them.
And telomeres can be changed by “lifestyle” choices. People who switch to vegetarian diets get longer telomeres. People who exercise more get longer telomeres. People who decrease “stress” get longer telomeres.
Similar factors make people less depressed – and less prone to depression.
When people have more social support, they experience less depressive episodes. Mild depression is treated as effectively by walking or other physical activity as by drugs. Cognitive-behavioral treatments that allow depressed people to sleep – and simultaneously see their illness in a whole new way – also effectively treat depression. Getting out in nature often makes people feel better – especially if they have been depressed.
So what tends to make telomeres longer will also effectively treat – even prevent – depressive syndromes.
Depression is a failure of normal regeneration. When depressed people do not function physically, biologically, socially or economically in anything resembling a normal fashion. Widespread effects include changing chromosomal length, shifting where and how brain function takes place, as well as pleasure, desire and appetite.
However, if you treat depression with multiple means – ranging from exercise to social support to cognitive homework – and you have a much better shot at treating depression effectively and preventing it. You can improve family and economic life, physiology, physical capacity, and decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke and death.
You even might lengthen the telomeres.
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