TUESDAY, Nov. 12 (HealthDay News) -- The cells of people who
have had depression may age more quickly, a new study suggests.
Dutch researchers compared cell structures called telomeres in
more than 2,400 people with and without depression.
Like the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces, telomeres cap
the ends of chromosomes to protect the cell's DNA from damage.
Telomeres get a bit shorter each time a cell divides, so they are
useful markers for aging.
The researchers found that the telomeres of people who had ever
been depressed were significantly shorter -- about 83 to 84 base
pairs of DNA shorter, on average -- than those of people who had
never suffered from depression.
The results remained even after researchers accounted for a host
of lifestyle factors that can also damage DNA, such as heavy
drinking and cigarette smoking.
Since people naturally lose about 14 to 20 base pairs of DNA in
the telomeres each year, the researchers said the difference
represents about four to six years of advanced aging.
The study showed only an association between depression and
shorter telomeres, and didn't prove a cause-and-effect link. The
researchers said they aren't entirely sure what the shorter
telomeres might mean in depression.
On one hand, study author Josine Verhoeven said, it could be
that having shorter telomeres somehow sets a person up for mental
troubles. But it's more likely that depression causes damage that
leaves traces even at the cellular level, she said.
Depression is known to disrupt many physical systems. It alters
hormones, suppresses the immune function and changes how nerves
work. People with a history of depression have greater risks for
diseases of aging, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia
"Results like ours suggest that psychological distress, as experienced by depressed persons, has a large, detrimental impact on the wear and tear of a person's body, resulting in accelerated biological aging," said Verhoeven, a doctoral researcher at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam.
The study was published online Nov. 12 in the journal
One expert said the study is significant in the number of people
"The strength of this report is its size," said Etienne Sibelle, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. He is studying how depression ages the brain.
Sibelle said previous research on the same question had mixed
results -- probably because the studies were too limited to pick up
the effect, which is small and varies from person to person.
"It's a small effect, but it's real," he said.
The next question science needs to answer, Sibelle said, is
whether telomere shortening really matters and if reversing it
could improve health. Other studies have shown that a healthier
diet, exercise and measures to control stress may lengthen
"It's just not known whether it has an impact on cell function," he said. "If that's the case, it has potential therapeutic importance."
Head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for
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