Depression plays role in accelerating biological aging

New research highlights associations between depression severity, cardiovascular health and cognitive decline in later life depression.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in exploring the connection between mental health and longevity – and it’s more than just mens sana in corpore sano, as researchers are discovering that not only does physical health affect mental health but vice versa with mental illness impacting on life expectancy and, in some cases, reducing it by up to 20 years [1].

When it comes to mental health and longevity, researchers at the UConn Center on Aging have made significant strides in unraveling this intricate relationship. Their latest study, published in Nature Mental Health, sheds light on the alarming discovery that older adults with depression are actually experiencing accelerated biological aging compared with their peers.

“These patients show evidence of accelerated biological aging, and poor physical and brain health,” says Breno Diniz, a UConn School of Medicine geriatric psychiatrist and author of the study, who notes that these are the main drivers of this association [2].

The study involved an analysis of 426 individuals with late-in-life depression. Researchers from UConn, in collaboration with other institutions, focused on measuring the levels of proteins associated with aging in the participants’ blood samples. Aging cells exhibit altered functionality and often produce proteins that contribute to inflammation and other adverse conditions. By comparing the levels of these proteins with various health indicators such as physical health, medical conditions, brain function and depression severity, the researchers aimed to gain insight into the relationship between accelerated aging and mental health [3].

Surprisingly, the severity of depression did not correlate directly with the level of accelerated aging in the study participants. However, the findings revealed a strong association between accelerated aging and poorer cardiovascular health. Individuals with higher levels of aging-associated proteins were more likely to have high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and multiple medical issues. Moreover, accelerated aging was also linked to decreased cognitive performance, particularly in areas such as working memory and other cognitive skills [3].

Acknowledging the significance of these findings, Diniz says: “Those two findings open up opportunities for preventive strategies to reduce the disability associated with major depression in older adults, and to prevent their acceleration of biological aging [2].”

Looking ahead, the researchers are now investigating whether therapies aimed at reducing the number of aged, senescent cells in the body could potentially improve late-in-life depression; they are also exploring specific sources and patterns of proteins associated with aging, with the hope of developing personalized treatments in the future.

This research not only highlights the distressing impact of depression on the aging process but also underscores the urgent need for interventions that address both mental health and physical well-being in older adults.