The unexpected role of depression in accelerating biological aging

Hospital for depressed elderly man

According to a study by the UConn Center on Aging, older adults with depression experience accelerated biological aging, leading to poor physical and brain health. This discovery opens up prospects for preventive strategies and targeted treatments to reduce disability and slow the aging of this population.

Researchers have found that older people with depression age faster than their peers.

Researchers from the Center on Aging at the University of Connecticut have found that older people with depression age faster than their peers. This accelerated biological aging is associated with poor physical and brain health, although the severity of depression itself appears unrelated. Accelerated aging is linked to poorer cardiovascular health, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, multiple medical conditions, and decreased cognitive performance. The study findings open up possibilities for preventive strategies to reduce depression-associated disability in older adults and slow biological aging. Researchers are now exploring therapies to shrink senescent cells and personalized treatments based on specific patterns of proteins associated with aging.

Older people with depression actually age faster than their peers, report researchers from the Center on Aging at the University of Connecticut.

“These patients show signs of accelerated biological aging and poor physical and brain health,” which are the main drivers of this association, says Breno Diniz, a UConn School of Medicine geriatric psychiatrist and study author, who was recently published in the newspaper Natural mental health.

Diniz and his colleagues from several other institutions examined 426 people with end-of-life depression. They measured the levels of proteins associated with aging in each person’s blood. When a cell ages, it begins to function differently, less efficiently, than a “young” cell. It often produces proteins that promote inflammation or other unhealthy conditions, and these proteins can be measured in the blood. Diniz and the other researchers compared the levels of these proteins with measures of the participants’ physical health, medical conditions, brain function and the severity of their depression.

To their surprise, the severity of a person’s depression seemed unrelated to their level of accelerated aging. However, they found that accelerated aging was associated with poorer cardiovascular health overall. People with high levels of proteins associated with aging were more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and multiple medical conditions. Accelerated aging was also associated with poorer performance on brain health tests such as working memory and other cognitive skills.

“These two findings open up opportunities for preventive strategies aimed at reducing the disability associated with major depression in the elderly and preventing their acceleration of biological aging,” said Diniz, of the UConn Center on Aging.

Researchers are now investigating whether therapies aimed at reducing the number of “senescent” aged cells in a person’s body can improve depression at the end of life. They are also studying specific sources and patterns of proteins associated with aging, to see if this could lead to personalized treatments in the future.

Reference: “Major Depression, Physical Health, and Molecular Aging Marker Abnormalities” by Johanna Seitz-Holland, Benoit H. Mulsant, Charles F. Reynolds III, Daniel M. Blumberger, Jordan F. Karp, Meryl A. Butters, Ana Paula Mendes-Silva, Erica L. Vieira, George Tseng, Eric J. Lenze, and Breno S. Diniz, March 22, 2023, Nature Mental Health.
DOI: 10.1038/s44220-023-00033-z

Funding: NIH/National Institute of Mental Health

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