Understanding the Role of Heredity in Depression

From red-haired curls to big blue eyes, certain characteristics run in families. But not every inherited trait is as harmless as hair color. Some families struggle with a darker legacy: depression. People who live with this disorder aren’t just blue; they often feel hopeless, helpless, and, in the most serious cases, suicidal. The symptoms of depression are profound enough that even simple, everyday tasks become difficult. But does depression really run in families? And if it does, can you do anything to prevent it? Let’s take a closer look at these two questions and their subsequent answers:

Is depression really hereditary?

Like so many disorders, the role of heredity in the development of depression is not clear-cut. We do know that having a parent, sibling, or child with depression increases your chance of developing it. For example, one study examined several generations of families who had survived a devastating earthquake in Armenia. Researchers discovered that about 60% of depressive episodes experienced after the event had a genetic link. This study suggests that our DNA plays at least some role in raising the risk for depression.

Scientists are just beginning to uncover the reasons behind that link. A study published in the journal Neuron revealed that one specific gene, SLC6A15, may factor into determining which people are at an increased risk of depression. Their work suggests that when this specific gene is shortened, it alters the brain’s ability to carry chemical messages. The modified gene may also harm the integrity of neurons, which are specialized nerve cells. Researchers are hopeful this type of genetic finding will lead to targeted antidepressants in the next 10 to 15 years. [2]

Recent mental health research also suggests that people living with depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus – a structure in the brain – than those who don’t live with the disorder. The hippocampus plays an important role in memory, learning, and emotion. What experts don’t know yet, however, is whether having a smaller hippocampus triggers depression, or whether the higher levels of stress hormones in depressed people shrinks that part of the brain. [3] What is clear is that depression is a complex mental disorder that will only be fully understood with the help of ongoing research.

If depression runs in my family, does that mean I’ll have it at some point too?

Not necessarily. The link between psychiatric disorders and genetics is apparent in some cases, but there are many non-genetic factors that are believed to also play a role in whether or not someone develops depression. Other risk factors for clinical depression may include:

  • Experiencing trauma as a child
  • Social isolation or having few close relationships
  • Suffering from a serious medical condition, like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Living with chronic pain
  • Taking certain medications (e.g. certain drugs used to treat high blood pressure)
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs

Is there anything I can do to reduce my risk for depression?

Depression often stems from a chemical imbalance in the brain, so there are no surefire ways to prevent it. However, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk and help keep it at bay. Lifestyles changes can play an important role in both reducing symptoms when they do occur, as well as helping to prevent episodes altogether. In general, you can make yourself more resilient to depression by reducing stress and creating a healthy mindset. Following are some practical tips:

  • Learn to manage your stress. When it comes to a depressive episode, stress is one of the leading triggers. While there is no way to completely eliminate stress from everyday life, you can learn a variety of stress management techniques that will boost your resilience and keep you calm. Practicing meditation and / or yoga on a regular basis are excellent for stress. Both help keep you calm and centered. Other relaxation techniques include deep breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, visualization, and guided imagery.
  • Stay connected to others. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are also prime triggers for major depression. Developing and maintaining healthy, supportive, positive relationships with a network of people is beneficial to your mental health in many ways. For example, if you don’t have close family nearby, you might start attending a local church or sign up for an intramural sports league.
  • Break a sweat. Whether you choose jogging in the park or a spinning class at the gym, regular aerobic exercise is a healthy way to boost your mood and alleviate the anxiety that often accompanies depression. Schedule physical exercise-at least 2 or 3 times a week-to flood your body with endorphins – the natural chemicals that decrease stress hormones and increase your sense of well-being.
  • Maintain your mental health. Even if you don’t suffer from symptoms of depression now, you might find it helpful to talk with a therapist regarding any stress and anxiety you may be experiencing. Whether you choose individual therapy or group sessions, you’ll benefit from the insight and support others can provide.
  • Eat well. It’s hard to feel good mentally or physically if your body isn’t nourished properly. Take some time to assess your current diet and pinpoint any weak areas that make your body operate at less than 100%. For example, eating foods high in sugar can wreak havoc with your mood and exacerbate depression, so reducing your sugar intake is a good starting point. Vegetables are packed with brain-boosting nutrients, so try to incorporate more fresh vegetables into your daily diet.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. Many people who struggle with depression also struggle with alcohol or drug abuse. While moderation with alcohol is a good policy for anyone, it’s especially important if you have a genetic predisposition to depression; in fact, you may consider avoiding it altogether since it’s a depressant. Illicit drug use should be avoided completely.
  • Communicate with your health care professional. Let your primary care doctor and other healthcare providers know that depression runs in your family. This will alert them to the fact that you may be at risk for developing the condition.

Depression does run in families. However, by being proactive you can reduce your risk of developing the disorder or at least keep symptoms to a minimum if they do occur. It’s never too soon to start managing your stress and building a foundation for good mental health.

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