Natural depression remedy: Staying social is ‘strongest protective factor’ against the blues

Researchers say having a person that you feel comfortable confiding may be the most important aspect of social connection when it comes to fighting depression.

BOSTON — What’s the best way to avoid feeling depressed? Some will tell you staying active and physically fit keeps the blues away, while others may turn to retail therapy when they’re feeling down. Now, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University say they’ve identified the “strongest protective factor” for depression: social connection.

Researchers examined more than 100 possible factors that may protect against depression in adults. Besides maintaining a robust social life, the authors also say that cutting back on sedentary activities like watching TV or napping during the day can lower an adult’s risk of depression.

“Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, but until now researchers have focused on only a handful of risk and protective factors, often in just one or two domains,” says lead study author Karmel Choi, PhD, investigator in the Department of Psychiatry and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a release. “Our study provides the most comprehensive picture to date of modifiable factors that could impact depression risk.”

How did researchers take such an extensive look at protective depression factors this time around? They utilized a two-pronged strategy. First, data originally collected by the U.K. Biobank (a long-term research project investigating the connection between genetics, environment, and disease occurrence) was used to gather a vast array of factors that may be associated with depression risk. Some of these factors included sleep patterns, diet, social activity, media use, environmental exposure, and physical activity.

The authors then applied the statistical method of Mendelian randomization to the strongest potential depression factors identified in part one. This helped researchers pick out which factors may have a causal relationship to a person’s depression risk.

‘Factors more relevant now than ever’

“Far and away the most prominent of these factors was frequency of confiding in others, but also visits with family and friends, all of which highlighted the important protective effect of social connection and social cohesion,” adds senior study author Dr. Jordan Smoller, associate chief for research in the MGH Department of Psychiatry. “These factors are more relevant now than ever at a time of social distancing and separation from friends and family.”

Even for people at a particularly high risk of developing depression, due to either trauma early in their life or a genetic predisposition, a strong social life shows protective effects against depression.

On the other side of that equation, watching TV is associated with an increase in depression risk. However, researchers aren’t sure if TV is so closely linked to depression because of all that time spent sitting or if it’s more connected to the actual content being viewed and consumed. Daytime napping, and rather surprisingly, taking multivitamins were also linked to increased depression risk.

“Depression takes an enormous toll on individuals, families, and society, yet we still know very little about how to prevent it,” Smoller concludes. “We’ve shown that it’s now possible to address these questions of broad public health significance through a large-scale, data-based approach that wasn’t available even a few years ago. We hope this work will motivate further efforts to develop actionable strategies for preventing depression.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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