Depression Affects the Entire Body – and Accelerates Aging

[Leslie Carol Botha: Depression – once thought to be ‘all in the head’ is now being understood as a manageable chemical imbalance that affects the entire body.]

New View of Depression: An Ailment of the Entire Body

The Wall Street Journal
April 9, 2012

Scientists are increasingly finding that depression and other psychological disorders can be as much diseases of the body as of the mind.

People with long-term psychological stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder tend to develop earlier and more serious forms of physical illnesses that usually hit people in older age, such as stroke, dementia, heart disease and diabetes. Recent research points to what might be happening on the cellular level that could account for this.

Scientists are finding that the same changes to chromosomes that happen as people age can also be found in people experiencing major stress and depression.

The phenomenon, known as “accelerated aging,” is beginning to reshape the field’s understanding of stress and depression not merely as psychological conditions but as body-wide illnesses in which mood may be just the most obvious symptom.

“As we learn more…we will begin to think less of depression as a ‘mental illness’ or even a ‘brain disease,’ but as a systemic illness,” says Owen Wolkowitz, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who along with colleagues has conducted research in the field.

Gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms that link physical and mental conditions could someday prove helpful in diagnosing and treating psychological illnesses and improving cognition in people with memory problems, Dr. Wolkowitz says.

In an early look at accelerated aging, researchers at Duke University found about 20 years ago that brain scans of older people with depression showed much faster age-related loss of volume in the brain compared with people without depression. The reasons for the accelerated aging appeared to go beyond unhealthy behaviors, like smoking, diet and lack of exercise, researchers said.

Recent efforts to study what is behind accelerated aging on a cellular level have focused on telomeres, a protective covering at the ends of chromosomes that have been recognized as playing an important role in aging. Telomeres get shorter as people age, and shortened telomeres also are related to increased risk of disease and mortality.

In several studies conducted at UCSF, researchers have found shortened telomere length to be associated with depression, childhood trauma and other conditions. A study of 43 adults with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, whose average age was about 30, and 47 healthy control subjects, found shorter telomere length in the PTSD group that equated to an estimated 4.5 years of accelerated aging, Dr. Wolkowitz says. The study was published last year in Biological Psychiatry.

In separate research, scientists in Sweden found similar results. In a study involving 91 patients with major depression and 451 healthy control subjects, researchers from Umeå University concluded that shortened telomere length was associated with depression and greater perceived life stress. The study was published in Biological Psychiatry in February.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.