- Researchers have identified seven healthy lifestyle factors that can help reduce depression risk.
- Healthy lifestyle factors include regular exercise, good-quality sleep, and interacting with friends.
- Brain volume and certain biomarkers are also positively associated with a healthy lifestyle.
Adhering to a healthy lifestyle significantly decreases your risk for depression.
That might sound like a no-brainer, but the science behind it isn’t as clear as you might think.
Now, new research is helping to define what leading a “healthy lifestyle” means for depression prevention by looking at the effects of a broad range of lifestyle factors, such as smoking, sleep patterns, and exercise.
While previous studies have generally only focused on specific lifestyle factors, for example the relationship between poor sleep and depression, this new research looks at a combination of them, as well as their effects on brain structure and biomarkers.
What new research suggests about healthy habits lowering depression risk
In a new study published this week in the journal, Nature Mental Health, researchers from the University of Cambridge and Fudan University, identified seven healthy lifestyle factors that are protective against depression.
The seven factors investigated were:
- exercise level
- sedentary behavior
- social connectedness
- alcohol consumption
The researchers also used biological markers such as triglycerides (the most common form of fat in the body), and c-reactive protein (an indicator of inflammation), as well as changes in brain structure as indicators of the biological mechanisms of depression on the body and brain.
“We discovered that having a healthy lifestyle reduced the risk of depression by 57%. Changing our behaviors and developing a healthy lifestyle is something that we can do for ourselves to lower the risk of depression,” Dr. Barbara J. Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry and lead study author, told Healthline.
Sahakian and her team utilized the UK Biobank, a medical research database containing anonymous health and lifestyle information about its participants.
They examined the data from 287,282 participants for their research, out of which roughly 13,000 had depression, and followed them over a nine-year period.
Dr. Scott Glassman, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania and the Director of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Glassman, who was not affiliated with the study, said the recent findings speak to the myriad ways in which lifestyle behaviors can affect mental health and the simple ways people can address them.
“The study’s findings also encourage clinicians to take a more holistic and multi-pronged approach to supporting their clients’ daily self-care routines. It is especially significant that healthy lifestyles seem to provide a kind of buffer for those with a high genetic risk for depression,” he said.
How lifestyle behaviors can affect depression risks
Of the seven lifestyle factors observed, healthy sleep had the greatest impact on depression risk, decreasing it by 22%.
“Never smoking” and frequent social connection followed, with 20% and 18%, respectively.
Having a healthy diet, consuming alcohol in moderation, regular physical activity, and low-to-moderate sedentary behavior also lowered depression risk.
Based on these seven factors, participants were assigned a lifestyle score between 1 and 7 and assigned to one of three groups (unfavorable, intermediate, and favorable), indicating the overall quality of their lifestyle.
Participants in the intermediate group were roughly 41% less likely to develop depression compared to those in the unfavorable lifestyle; those in the favorable lifestyle group were 57% less likely.
Researchers also looked at genetic variants linked with depression
Individuals with the lowest genetic risk score were 25% less likely to develop depression — a smaller impact than lifestyle.
The finding underscores that living a healthy lifestyle can be even more important in the development of depression than genetic factors.
“I believe that all of our health behaviors are related to our overall health (physical and mental) and it’s hard to single them out, which is why this research is interesting, as it looked at the combined effect,” said Dr. Rachel Goldman, PhD, a licensed psychologist in private practice in NYC, and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at New York University.
“The behaviors that we participate in and do are going to impact how we think as well as how we feel and our mood. It’s all related, ” addedGoldman, who was not affiliated with the research.
How the brain-body connection affects mental health risks
While the research relied on self-reporting about behaviors, which can make accuracy and consistency difficult, it also utilized biological and neurological markers to help understand the relationship between lifestyle factors and depression.
Researchers utilized MRI brain scans of about 33,000 participants and were able to correlate larger volume (an indicator of brain health) in certain areas of the brain with healthy lifestyle factors.
Stress and inflammation biomarkers, C-reactive protein and triglycerides, were also improved with lifestyle score, highlighting the complex relationship between how stress, metabolism, and even our immune systems can affect our risk for depression.
A study from 2022 found that high triglyceride levels were associated with increased prevalence of depression in men.
Meanwhile, C-reactive protein has been “associated with a greater symptom severity, specific pattern of depressive symptoms and a worst treatment response,” according to research published in 2022.
How to adopt a sustainable healthy lifestyle
Keeping these seven lifestyle factors in mind, how can you make them part of your life? Well, slowly to start.
“To build up your healthy lifestyle choose one of the seven lifestyle factors to work on and slowly build up to having all seven of them over several months. Make having a healthy lifestyle a habit. It may be that you already have a couple of these good lifestyle factors, but try to build up to ensure you have at least five and ideally seven of them,” said Sahakian.
Meanwhile, Goldman recommends taking a holistic approach to lifestyle.
“What I like to say to people is that it’s about what we do on MOST days. We don’t have to participate in these behaviors on a daily basis and be rigid about it, but we do have to take care of our health by focusing on these health behaviors and incorporating them into our lifestyle,” he said.
The bottom line
Living a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk of developing depression.
A healthy lifestyle includes things like regular exercise, moderate alcohol consumption, connecting with friends, and good quality sleep as well as limiting alcohol consumption.
Making consistent steps towards your healthy lifestyle goals is more important than making dramatic change all at once.