Traditionally, depression susceptibility has been associated with genetic factors. However, a groundbreaking study published in Nature Mental Health now demonstrates that adopting a set of seven healthy lifestyle habits can significantly reduce the risk of depression, even in individuals with a genetic predisposition to the condition.
This pioneering observational research, considered one of the largest and highest-quality studies of its kind, unveils the remarkable impact of seven specific lifestyle habits on depression risk. These habits include moderation in alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy diet, regular physical activity, ensuring adequate sleep, refraining from smoking, avoiding sedentary behavior, and nurturing social connections. Following such a lifestyle not only reduces the risk of depression but also results in additional benefits like improved brain volumes, enhanced immune and metabolic functions.
Although genetic factors have long been linked to depression risk, this new analysis underscores that adhering to a set of seven healthy lifestyle habits can notably mitigate the risk and even override genetic predisposition.
To conduct this groundbreaking study, a team of researchers from Fudan University in China and the University of Cambridge in the UK utilized the extensive dataset of the UK Biobank, comprising detailed genetic and health information from half a million UK participants. This wealth of data has catalyzed a resurgence in high-quality epidemiological studies.
The research began by examining the self-reported lifestyle habits of 287,282 individuals, focusing on seven key factors: diet, alcohol consumption, physical activity, sleep, smoking, sedentary behavior, and social connections. These participants were then monitored over a nine-year period to identify those who subsequently experienced depression, assessing how each of these habits influenced the risk.
The study’s findings are as follows:
- Consuming a healthy diet, characterized by a focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish while limiting refined grains, processed meats, and red meat, led to a 6 percent reduction in depression risk.
- Limiting alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two for men was associated with an 11 percent reduction in risk.
- Spending less than four hours daily on screen time outside of work resulted in a 13 percent decrease in depression risk.
- Engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week led to a 14 percent reduction in risk.
- Maintaining social connections with friends and family contributed to an 18 percent reduction in depression risk.
- Never smoking was linked to a significant 20 percent decrease in risk.
- Consistently obtaining seven to nine hours of nightly sleep, on average, lowered the risk of depression by a substantial 22 percent.
Notably, individuals adhering to at least five of these healthy habits experienced an impressive 57 percent decrease in depression risk compared to those following just one or none of these practices.
Furthermore, the researchers delved into genetic data for nearly 200,000 individuals, discovering that embracing at least five of these habits proved effective in helping individuals genetically predisposed to depression avoid developing the condition.
While genetic factors can elevate the risk of depression, this study underscores the powerful influence of a healthy lifestyle in preventing this condition. According to Barbara Sahakian, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and one of the study’s authors, “Our DNA — the genetic hand we’ve been dealt — can increase our risk of depression, but we’ve shown that a healthy lifestyle is potentially more important.”
In addition, brain imaging data for 33,000 participants in the study provided insights into a potential causal mechanism by which lifestyle can impact depression. Higher lifestyle scores were linked to increased volume in the orbitofrontal cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, indicative of improved cognitive control and emotion regulation.
Moreover, blood work data from some study subjects hinted at enhanced immune and metabolic function among those adhering to a healthy lifestyle.