Dan Murphy: Defeating Depression

Clinical depression is a worldwide scourge, and while some mental health authorities point to modern lifestyles as a key risk factor, a new study suggest a simple, yet effective treatment.

Do you occasionally get depressed?

If you don’t, I have to ask: What’s wrong with you?

How can you NOT be depressed at the state of our politics, the never-ending unrest and warfare around the world, the local carnage and global eco-disasters TV newscasters are only too happy to detail every night at 6 and 11?

It’s enough to make even the sunniest of optimists sink into the gloom and doom that characterizes the bouts of depression periodically suffered by an estimated 16 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Thanks to decades of research at NIMH, universities and nonprofit institutions, we know that the primary risk factors that predispose people to depression are environmental, yes, but also biological.

As a recent National Public Radio report explained, “Some people are more susceptible to depression simply by virtue of being born. Depression and other mood disorders run in families, not only because of what happens in those families, but because of the genetic material families share.”

One of the most famous examples of such biological predisposition involves arguably our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, and his lifelong struggles with what the 19th century medical establishment quaintly labeled as “melancholy.”

In a new book titled, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” author Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote that, “When you read the reminiscences of Lincoln’s friends and you hear him described in their terms, he’s always the most depressed person they’ve ever seen.”

Shenk’s book goes on to suggest that Lincoln’s melancholy, which was also manifested in his parents, by the way, might also have ironically been the source of his resolve as he faced the greatest crisis the young American republic had ever confronted.

A promising anti-depressive therapy

For so many contemporary adults, however, depression is more of a millstone than a touchstone, more of a burden than a blessing. Worst of all, despite a plethora of pharmaceutical remedies prescribed by healthcare providers to deal with depression, the experience of literally millions of patients, including my own adult son, testifies to the reality that the cure is often worse than the disease.

Is it better to slog through life dulled and lethargic, uninterested in virtually any of the activities that excite the rest of us? Or it is preferable to periodically succumb to thoughts of despair, even suicide, temporary as those might be?

Because that’s often the tradeoff physicians offer to people struggling with clinical depression.

But there is another option, albeit one that a whole lot of non-depressed people eschew: exercise.

According to a new study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital — and published appropriately enough in the journal Depression and Anxiety — increased levels of physical activity “can significantly reduce the odds of depression, even among people who are genetically predisposed to the condition.”

The researchers reported that people who engaged in several hours of exercise each week were less likely to be diagnosed with a new episode of depression, even in the face of high genetic risk for the disorder.

The study analyzed genetic data and health records of nearly 8,000 participants in a project called the Partners Healthcare Biobank. They tracked patients who completed a survey about their lifestyle habits, including physical activity, and evaluated millions of electronic medical data points over the next two years to identify people who received diagnoses related to depression and then calculated their “genetic risk scores” for depression.

They found that people with higher genetic risk were more likely to be diagnosed with depression over the next two years. Yeah … doesn’t take a PhD to come to that conclusion.

However, people who were more physically active were less likely to develop depression, even those with higher risk scores.

“Our findings strongly suggest that, when it comes to depression, genes are not destiny and that being physically active has the potential to neutralize the added risk of future episodes in individuals who are genetically vulnerable,” Karmel Choi, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researcher and lead author of the study, stated in a summary posted on ScienceCodex.com. “On average, about 35 additional minutes of physical activity each day may help people to reduce their risk and protect against future depression episodes.”

May help a lot of other lifestyle-related “episodes,” as well.

Of even greater interest for those who contend that they can’t (or won’t) consistently exercise, the research team reported that both high-intensity exercises, such as aerobics, dance and the use of fitness machines, as well as lower-intensity activities, such as yoga and stretching, both appeared to decrease the odds of depression by an average of 17%.

Obviously, exercise alone doesn’t “cure” severe depression, but beyond mitigating the occurrence of depressive bouts, it also produces additional side effects, which, unlike most medications, are actually beneficial. As noted in this space several thousand times over the years, you can’t exercise your way out of a lousy diet, but you can utilize exercise to limit the effects of aging and its consequent impact on strength, mobility and overall well-being.

Like every non-infectious disease, the causes of depression are manifold and include both genetic and environmental risk factors. While the researchers who conducted the Mass General study acknowledged that medical science lacks “actionable ways of preventing depression and other mental health conditions,” their conclusions about the value of regular activity and movement deserve serious consideration.

Just don’t count on scientists, doctors or academics to be your personal role models of fitness in action.

Consider their data, not their lifestyles.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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