People With Depression May Face A Higher Risk Of Chronic Illnesses, A New Study Suggests

by Carolyn de Lorenzo
A depressed woman lying on her couch in a beige sweater putting her hand over her eyes

Mental and physical health can intersect in significant ways. While a growing body of previous research shows that people with chronic illnesses have a higher risk of developing mental health disorders, researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia say that the reverse may also be true. Women who experience long-term clinical depression may be at risk for multiple chronic illnesses, the new study says. This research suggests that many chronic diseases and depression may share the same biological pathways. The good news is, there are steps you can take to help bolster your overall health, and get adequate support.

The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health followed 7,407 women with no previous mental health or chronic illness diagnoses for a period of 20 years, according to a press release on the study. During the course of the research, the study’s authors found that nearly half — 43.2 % — of study subjects had symptoms of depression, while just under half were receiving treatment or had been diagnosed with the disorder. Women who were depressed showed a higher rate of chronic illness before the onset of their depressive symptoms.

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“Experiencing depressive symptoms appeared to amplify the risk of chronic illness,” University of Queensland School of Public Health PhD scholar Xiaolin Xu said, according to the press release. “After women started experiencing these symptoms, they were 2.4 times more likely to suffer from multiple chronic conditions compared to women without depressive symptoms,” he said.

A common underlying feature of both physical and mental illnesses is chronic inflammation, Xu noted. Inflammation has been linked to a number of health issues in previous research, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The study’s authors note that these findings may help further clarify the biological underpinnings of mental and physical chronic health conditions, leading to more effective treatment plans for patients moving forward.

“Inflammation in the body has been linked to the development of both depression and chronic physical diseases,” Xu said according to the press release. “Chronic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension, are also commonly associated with depression.”

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Since this study adds to a significant body of research linking chronic illness, depression, and inflammation it's helpful to know that there are ways to ease inflammation through lifestyle changes. Even if you do manage depression or another chronic illness, there are steps you can take to reduce inflammation. Stress reduction techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing, getting some exercise into your routine, and optimizing your sleep at night can help, the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says. Turmeric, fresh produce, and probiotics are also considered anti-inflammatory foods, as Annakeara Stinson previously wrote for Bustle.

The bottom line is, managing depression doesn’t mean that you will get sick with another illness. Knowing what your risks are, however, can help empower you to take steps that may boost your health overall, and lessen your chances for further health issues down the road.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911