Depression can increase the risk of poor physical and brain health

Aging and Depression: Does Getting Older Have You Feeling Blue?

Aging and Depression: Does Getting Older Have You Feeling Blue?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Well, this is depressing! Older individuals suffering symptoms of depression age at a faster rate than their chronological peers, according to research coming out of the University of Connecticut.

A study of 426 people aged 60 and older showed that those who had any level of depression had higher levels of poor physical and brain health, as well as signs of a biological age that outpaced the number on their birth certificates.

Sadly, the degree of depressive symptoms didn't correlate with the speed of aging, so even those who were "mildly" depressed showed as much accelerated aging as those with symptoms of major depression.

Still, there is a silver lining. "Those two findings open up opportunities for preventive strategies to reduce the disability associated with major depression in older adults, and to prevent their acceleration of biological aging," the study's author, Breno Diniz of the UConn Center on Aging, said in a UConn Today report.

How mental health affects aging

What does mental health have to do with aging? Previous findings have determined that compared with older individuals who do not have depression, those with depressive disorders have higher levels of cellular senescence, a natural process in which cells stop dividing and stop functioning optimally.

When we're young, the body is usually efficient at clearing old, or "senescent" cells. But as we age, senescent cells can accumulate and may start producing different proteins and inflammatory signals; this becomes a burden to the healthy cells around them. More senescent cells tends to mean faster biological aging.

This led to the hypothesis: if depression means a heavier burden of suboptimal cells, does that mean depressed older individuals are actually less physically healthy than their chronological peers who don't have mental health concerns? By studying both the cellular and overall wellness of aging individuals with depression, the UConn study found that indeed, a higher senescent cell burden is linked to poor cognitive and physical health.

Researchers were able to determine senescent cell burden by measuring senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP) protein levels.

The researchers noted several associations with SASP in the study:

  • Age and sex had significant effect on SASP index (older people and men had a higher SASP index). However, the severity of anxiety symptoms or depression symptoms did not have a significant effect on SASP.
  • Higher SASP correlated to worse working memory and cognitive function among study participants.
  • Higher SASP also correlated to worse cardiovascular (blood pressure) and cardiometabolic (blood sugar and cholesterol) health.

According to the UConn Today report, the researchers are now looking at whether therapies to reduce senescent cell levels can improve symptoms of late-in-life depression.

Does aging cause depression?

Research has linked aging with declining mental health and increased depression symptoms. However, depression is a complex disorder. Mood disorders and anxiety disorders can happen in any life stage, but certain factors can make one more or less prone to depressive symptoms at specific ages.

It is likely that a person's perception of aging can be linked to depression—meaning that if you feel old, you are more likely to be depressed than someone who sees themselves as youthful. Other factors, such as chronic physical illness or disease, cognition and memory issues (including dementia), hearing loss, vision loss and especially isolation, also can contribute to depression. Life events, such as the loss of friends and family members, often contribute to sadness and depressed mood.

So whether the aging process itself can cause depression or not, many of the other effects of getting older contribute to depressed thoughts and disorders.

What is the most common cause of depression in older adults?

A common cause of depression is isolation—after all, one is the loneliest number—and people tend to spend more time alone as they age. Health conditions like disease and disorders and chronic insomnia are also tied to depression. This mix of factors is more common in older adults, and it can increase the risk for depressive symptoms.

How do you stay positive during aging?

With the age-related risk factors piling up, seniors should be proactive about maintaining their mental health. Experts recommend the following to help seniors stay positive:

  • Maintain those social connections!

    There is a reason why many city parks and senior communities have a variety of day-to-day events scheduled for residents. We may let relationships peter out as we get older, but taking the time to cultivate new friendships will really pay off. Research has shown time and again the value of social connections for sharper cognition, better mental health, emotional well-being and even longevity.
  • Stay physically active.

    Not only will going to a yoga class help you flex and stretch your muscles, it gives you that all-important social interaction as well! A healthy, active lifestyle can help you burn off stress (and, maybe, sadness), keep your heart strong and set you up for easy, restful sleep at night.
  • Eat a balanced diet.

    Getting enough nourishment can be a challenge when you age, especially if your appetite lessens and you start to experience gastrointestinal upsets such as acid reflux and constipation that may never have bothered you before. But you are what you eat, so be sure to include fiber, leafy greens and fresh fruits in your diet, and try to limit added sugars and processed foods as much as possible.
  • Get outside in nature as often as possible.

    Trends such as "forest bathing" have highlighted the benefits of getting out among the greenery. Sunshine and fresh air may help bolster your happy hormones and provide a pick-me-up if you're feeling down.
  • Consider getting therapy.

    Sometimes self-help is not enough, especially when dealing with major life events. Psychotherapy may be able to help you to gain the confidence and self-esteem you need to join a social club or exercise program, manage your anxiety disorders or side effects of disease better, or simply deal with unresolved issues that are a normal part of life. After all, a life well-lived is hardly free of baggage, and it can make sense to sort it out.
  • Get enough sleep!

    Restful sleep is so important to your physical and mental health, and not getting enough can lead to health problems. Try to establish a routine to help you slip off to sleep more easily, so you can wake refreshed.



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