Cut The Risk Of Depression
It’s common knowledge that adopting healthy habits, like eating nutritious food and exercising regularly, can positively affect physical health and lower the chances of chronic diseases. Now, new research has identified seven lifestyle habits that can affect your physical health and your mental health, as well.
According to the study published in September in Nature Mental Health, people who practiced five or more of these healthy habits, such as getting good sleep and maintaining strong social ties, had a 57 percent lower risk of depression, “which is really quite a massive amount,” according to the study’s author, Barbara Sahakian.
“As a society, we often focus on our physical health, but we should spend more time focusing on our mental health and well-being,” Sahakian, who is also a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge in England, told Everyday Health.
To investigate the relationship between lifestyle factors and depression, an international team of researchers examined data from 287,282 participants from UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database and research resource. Of the total number of participants, 12,916 had depression. The research team collected data over nine years and identified the following seven healthy lifestyle factors associated with lowering the risk of depression:
1. Healthy Sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep made the most significant difference for lowering the risk of depression. According to the study, sleeping an average of seven to nine hours a night decreased the risk of depression by about 22 percent.
“A lot of us think of sleep as a kind of a passive process, but it’s an incredibly active process,” Sahakian told NPR.
Previously published studies have found that healthy sleep has other significant benefits, including helping people remember things they learned during the day and strengthening the immune system enough to fend off a common cold.
2. Never Smoke
The recent study found that those who never smoked reduced their risk of depression by 20 percent. People who have never smoked also have decreased their risk of serious illnesses, such as lung cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that smoking causes about 20 percent of all cancers and about 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States.
3. Frequent Social Connection
Staying connected to others and cultivating friendships reduced the risk of depression by 18 percent and was the most protective against recurrent depressive disorder, the study found. The research also showed that older adults who were socially isolated had a much higher risk of getting dementia, Sahakian told NPR.
4. Regular Physical Activity
According to the recent study, regular physical activity reduced the risk of depression by 14 percent. Previously published studies on depression have similar findings regarding physical activity. For example, a 2018 study found that people who exercised on a regular basis reported having fewer days of poor mental health. What’s more, a comprehensive 2023 study found that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective in managing depression than counseling or the leading medications.
Douglas Noordsy, a psychiatrist with the Stanford Lifestyle Medicine Program, told NPR that antidepressants tend to be the most effective in treating depression quickly. “But physical exercise has more durable effects than an antidepressant does,” he said.
5. Low-to-Moderate Sedentary Behavior
Based on the study, low-to-moderate sedentary behavior reduced the risk of depression by 13 percent. Conversely, playing video games for hours, sitting in front of a computer screen, or scrolling on a smartphone are risk factors for depression.
“We know that long periods of being sedentary are an independent risk factor for depression, independent from how much exercise you get,” Noordsy told NPR.
6. Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Moderate alcohol consumption decreased the risk of depression by 11 percent, according to the study. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting alcohol consumption to two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less in a day for women.
7. A Healthy Diet
According to the study, a healthy diet reduced the risk of depression by six percent. When it comes to eating healthy, Sahakian said she recommends the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet, both of which consist of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fat.
“They’re both very good diets,” Sahakian told NPR. “And not only are they good for your health and your well-being and your brain and cognition, but they also have been shown to help people live longer.”
The Mediterranean diet has been hailed as one of the healthiest diets in the world. In fact, U.S. News & World Report named it the “best diet overall” for six years in a row. The diet is named after the traditional foods eaten by residents in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet combines the Mediterranean diet with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. DASH is designed to reduce hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.
In addition to identifying the healthy lifestyle factors, the international team of investigators examined the DNA of the participants and assigned each a genetic risk score based on the number of genetic variants they carried that had a known link to the risk of depression. Those with the lowest genetic risk score were 25 percent less likely to develop depression when compared to those with the highest score—a much smaller impact than lifestyle.
Although our DNA—the genetic hand we’ve been dealt—can increase our risk of depression, these findings suggest that healthy behaviors are potentially more important, Sahakian said. “The key message is that having a healthy lifestyle can have enormous benefits for your mental health and well-being by reducing the risk of depression.”