Caring supportive woman standing behind her stressed boyfriend

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It doesn’t take much to check on someone and be supportive when they’re under stress. Now, researchers from the University of Michigan are taking this a step further, suggesting that comforting those with a genetic predisposition for depression may be especially important.

“Our data show wide variability in the level of social support individuals received during these stressful times, and how it changed over time,” says first author Jennifer Cleary, M.S., a psychology doctoral student at U-M who is doing her research with senior author Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D., in a university release. “We hope these findings, which incorporate genetic risk scores as well as measures of social support and depressive symptoms, illuminate the gene-environment interactions and specifically the importance of social connection in depression risk.”

To conduct this work, the team used data from two long-term studies that capture genetic, mood, environment, and other data from participants. One of these groups is the Intern Health Study, which is directed by Sen and enrolls first-year medical students. The other, the Health and Retirement Study, is based at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.  The team came away with data from 1,011 residents interning at hospitals around the U.S., and 435 recently widowed individuals (71% female) who took park in surveys before and after losing their spouse.

Dr. Sen discovered a stark increase of 126 percent in depressive symptoms among residents, likely attributed to long days and living far away from their hometowns, families, and friends. For those who lost a spouse, depressive symptoms increased 34 percent compared to before they experienced the loss. Both of these findings align with previous research demonstrating that those living through these sorts of circumstances carry a heavy load of stress.

Social support can outweigh genetic mental health risks

After this, the team examined the connection to genetics. They took the depression symptom findings and compared them to a person’s polygenic risk score for depression as well as their individual responses to questions about family, friendships, and other forms of social support. It’s no surprise that most of the residents lost significant social support, especially considering that their new place of work is more often than not far away from their hometowns and where they completed medical school. First-year residents with the highest genetic risk scores who also lost social support scored highest on the measures of depressive symptoms later in the year.

On the other hand, those with the same level of genetic risk who had social support showed significantly lower symptoms of depression, even more so than those with lower genetic risk. The researchers have identified this concept as a “crossover effect.” The team saw something similar in the widows, although in a different way. Those who lost their spouse often reported having more social support from friends and family as they navigate their new normal, but widows with high genetic risk alongside this support showed a relatively small increase in depressive symptoms compared to those with the same genetic risk but no support.

While the team is looking ahead to conducting more detailed research on interactions between genetic risk, stress, and social support, the main takeaway now is that reaching out and being a kind person can benefit both you and the person struggling. Despite this work not including seeking professional support or therapy, they still emphasize the value of seeking it out for those with depression.

The findings are published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

About Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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