How Depression Accelerates Aging

Chromosome telomeres shortened with depression and chronic stress

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

The detrimental effects of stress and depression have long been evident: heart problems, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, immune system problems and a host of other health issues. While many of these effects are acutely felt by the sufferer, many more go unseen.

Being depressed can actually age you faster—and so can stress.

New research has shown this direct relationship on our bodies, and how both depression and stress age us in our very chromosomes. A research team at Umeå University in Sweden studied the telomere, which is the outermost part of the chromosome, to see how it was affected by depression and stress.

The team, led by Mikael Wikgren, included 91 participants with recurrent depression along with 451 healthy control subjects. Researchers measured each of the participants' telomere length using white blood cells, and also tested their stress regulation (measured by cortisol levels, which indicate exposure to chronic stress).

The patients who were depressed had shorter telomere length. In addition, among both the depressed patients and the control group, those who had higher cortisol levels indicating stress also had shooter telomeres.

The Links Between Depression, Stress and Aging

Wikgren said that the fact that depressed patients as a group have shorter telomere lengths compared to healthy individuals can be largely explained by the fact that depressed people have more disturbed cortisol regulation. This finding underscores the major role that stress plays in depressive disorders.

Telomeres shorten as we age, as a natural biological process. Telomere length has been linked to age-related diseases and longevity, as well as unhealthy lifestyle practices. But when additional factors such as depression and stress accelerate this shortening, we age faster biologically.

“The test revealed that cortisol levels indicative of chronic stress stress are associated with shorter telomeres in both depressed and healthy individuals,” said Wikgren.

The Swedish study findings were published in a recent issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry. “The link between stress and telomere shortening is growing stronger," commented Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry. "The current findings suggest that cortisol levels may be a contributor to this process, but it is not yet clear whether telomere length has significance beyond that of a biomarker."

This study highlights the link between stress and depression, says Nicole Meise, Ph.D. "The results seem to indicate that individuals suffering from depression may have a more difficult time dealing with stress, not just on an emotional level, but also a physiological one."

Meise adds that while most people accept a certain amount of stress as a normal part of life, we often don’t think about the role our biology plays in whether or not we can effectively deal with it. "Based on these findings, when someone says they have a short fuse or are burnt out from stress it may, on at least a neurological level, be true."

The Two-Way Negative Relationship Between Depression and Aging

This role that depression appears to play on our bodies' aging process could be viewed as a double-edged sword, because we also appear to be more susceptible to depression as we age.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there is evidence that the natural body changes associated with aging may increase a person's risk of depression. Recent studies suggest that lower concentrations of folate in the blood and nervous system may contribute to depression, mental impairment, and dementia. Researchers also suspect that there may be a link between the onset of late-life depression and Alzheimer's disease.

The APA suggests the following issues to consider when considering the interplay between depression and aging:

  • Limitations in physical ability may alter the course of treatment. While it may make sense to encourage someone who is depressed to get some exercise in order to improve symptoms, this may not be possible with older adults. Any physical activity that is used as a stress reliever must be undertaken in a safe way. Changes in diet may also need addressed.
  • Although it's just a saying, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks", does hold some anecdotal truths. Older adults may not be as receptive to implementing lifestyle changes as a younger person would. Therapists and physicians need to be aware of this and be flexible in trying to change habits or try out new routines.
  • Tact is important. As some people age, their self-esteem may become fragile, as they may interpret harmless and well-intentioned encouragement regarding treatment of their depression as a reminder that they are indeed "not as good as they used to be" and may have declining health. Therapists and psychologists are specially trained to deal with these types of changes in older adults.
Review Date: 
March 5, 2012