Science Current Events | Science News |

Study Finds Link Between Chronic Depression and Accelerated Immune Cell Aging

April 06, 2011

Certain cases of major depression are associated with premature aging of immune cells, which may make people more susceptible to other serious illness, according to findings from a new UCSF-led study.

The findings indicate that accelerated cell aging does not occur in all depressed individuals, but is dependent upon how long someone is depressed, particularly if that depression goes untreated. The study was published online in March 2011 by the journal PLoS One and is available here:

"There's a lot more to depression than feeling blue," said first author Owen Wolkowitz, MD, a professor of psychiatry at UCSF. "As if feeling depressed is not bad enough, we are finding that long-term depression may be associated with damage to cells in the body, and this may predispose patients to certain physical diseases."

Previously considered a mental illness affecting only the brain, major depressive disorder, or MDD, now is believed to be tied to significant physical damage outside the brain, explained Wolkowitz. For example, depressed individuals are more likely to develop the diseases of advanced age, including diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, stroke and dementia.

In probing the links between depression and physical disease, the research team explored aging of the immune system as measured by the shortening of telomeres in immune cells taken from the blood.

Telomeres are tiny units of DNA-protein complexes that seal off and protect the ends of chromosomes and act as a biological clock controlling a cell's life. Telomere shortening predicts earlier onset of several major age-related diseases and earlier mortality, and may serve as one index of human longevity.

The researchers compared the length of telomeres in 18 individuals with MDD not currently receiving antidepressant medications to the length of telomeres in 17 healthy controls. Overall, telomeres of the depressed group did not differ from those of the healthy group; however, individuals with nine or more years of untreated chronic depression showed significant telomere shortening, even after accounting for chronological age. The degree of shortening in this subset of the depressed group corresponded to about seven years of "accelerated cell aging."

Telomere shortening also was associated with higher levels of inflammation and oxidative stress in patients, both linked to cell damage and premature aging. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between destructive "free radical" molecules and the body's ability to neutralize them with antioxidants. The authors suggest that telomere shortening in very chronic depression may reflect an individual's cumulative exposure to biochemical stressors that promote cell death and increase the likelihood of physical disease.

"While this finding itself might seem depressing, there is yet good news: many lifestyle factors like exercise and aspects of diet have been linked to longer telomeres," said co-author Elissa Epel, PhD, an associate professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry. "So while our personal history matters, it is possible that what we do today may matter even more, in terms of protecting our telomeres."

Epel and co-author Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, UCSF professor of biochemistry and biophysics, pioneered research on the impact of psychological stress on several biological markers of cell aging. Blackburn shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her telomere research and co-discovery of the cellular enzyme telomerase. Telomerase helps repair and restore telomeres, protecting cells from damage related to premature aging.

In related work, the research team recently reported in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, available here (, that individuals with MDD show increased activity of the telomerase enzyme. Depressed individuals with the lowest telomerase activity before antidepressant treatment, and those with the greatest increase in activity during treatment, showed the strongest antidepressant responses. These findings suggest that the seemingly paradoxical increase of telomerase in untreated depressed individuals indicates their bodies are attempting to compensate for the damage to their telomeres. Increases during treatment, on the other hand, may represent true improvement in depression.

"We speculate that telomerase may provide a biological marker for antidepressant responses," Wolkowitz said. "Once we better understand these systems, we will be in a stronger position to treat depression and possibly prevent some of its associated physical illnesses."

As a next step, UCSF researchers plan to replicate these preliminary findings in a larger sample of depressed individuals in order to explain why certain people develop shortened telomeres and physical disease, and how that process can be combated. Depressed individuals not taking antidepressants are currently being enrolled for this ongoing study, and interested participants may inquire at (415) 476-7254 or

Additional UCSF co-authors are Synthia Mellon, PhD; Jue Lin, PhD; Victor Reus, MD; Rebecca Rosser; Heather Burke, PhD; Eve Kupferman, PhD; Mariana Compagnone, MD; and J. Craig Nelson, MD. Co-authors from other institutions are Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, of Stanford and Yali Su, PhD, of Kronos Science Laboratory.

The studies were funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the O'Shaughnessy Foundation, the Bernard and Barbro Osher Foundation, and UCSF. Additionally, Blackburn, Epel and Lin are co-founders of a new company called Telome Health, Inc., which is developing applications of telomere biology to identify disease risk and to improve wellness.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. More information is available at

University of California - San Francisco

Related Depression Current Events and Depression News Articles

Mapping neural networks to strengthen circadian rhythms
If you've ever felt groggy the morning after traversing time zones, you can thank the temporary mismatch between your body's 24-hour circadian rhythm and your new local time.

Maternal inflammation boosts serotonin and impairs fetal brain development in mice
Fighting the flu during pregnancy sickens a pregnant woman, but it may also put the fetus at a slightly increased risk for neurodevelopmental disorders like autism later in life.

Ever-changing moods may be toxic to the brain of bipolar patients
Bipolar disorder (BD) is a severe and complex mental illness with a strong genetic component that affects 2% of the world population. The disorder is characterized by episodes of mania and depression that may alternate throughout life and usually first occur in the early 20s.

Study shows patients require less painkilling medication after breast-cancer surgery if they have opiate-free anesthesia
New research presented at Euroanaesthesia 2016 (London 27-30 May) shows that patients undergoing breast cancer surgery need less painkilling medication post-surgery if they have anaesthesia that is free of opioid drugs.

Increased marrying, and mating, by education level not affecting genetic make-up
While the latter half of the 20th century showed a widening gap between the more and less educated with respect to marriage and fertility, this trend has not significantly altered the genetic makeup of subsequent generations, a team of researchers has found.

Brain structure that tracks negative events backfires in depression
A region of the brain that responds to bad experiences has the opposite reaction to expectations of aversive events in people with depression compared to healthy adults, finds a new UCL study funded by the Medical Research Council.

New findings linking abnormalities in circadian rhythms to neurochemical to changes in specific neurotransmitters
Results of the first study of its kind to link abnormalities in circadian rhythms to changes in specific neurotransmitters in people with bipolar disorder will be published this week in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Researchers find new signs of stress damage in the brain, plus hope for prevention
Chronic stress can make us worn-out, anxious, depressed--in fact, it can change the architecture of the brain. New research at The Rockefeller University shows that when mice experience prolonged stress, structural changes occur within a little-studied region of their amygdala, a part of the brain that regulates basic emotions, such as fear and anxiety.

Multiple personality disorder may be rooted in traumatic experiences
A new King's College London study supports the notion that multiple personality disorder is rooted in traumatic experiences such as neglect or abuse in childhood, rather than being related to suggestibility or proneness to fantasy.

Workaholism tied to psychiatric disorders
Researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway have examined the associations between workaholism and psychiatric disorders among 16,426 working adults.
More Depression Current Events and Depression News Articles

The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time
by Alex Korb PhD (Author), Daniel J. Siegel MD (Foreword)

Depression can feel like a downward spiral, pulling you into a vortex of sadness, fatigue, and apathy. In The Upward Spiral, neuroscientist Alex Korb demystifies the intricate brain processes that cause depression and offers a practical and effective approach to getting better. Based on the latest research in neuroscience, this book provides dozens of straightforward tips you can do every day to rewire your brain and create an upward spiral towards a happier, healthier life.
Whether you suffer from depression or just want a better understanding of the brain, this book offers an engaging and informative look at the neuroscience behind our emotions, thoughts, and actions. The truth is that there isn’t one big solution to depression, but there are numerous simple steps you can...

The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs

The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs
by Stephen S. Ilardi (Author)

In the past decade, depression rates have skyrocketed, and one in four Americans will suffer from major depression at some point in their lives. Where have we gone wrong? Dr. Stephen Ilardi sheds light on our current predicament and reminds us that our bodies were never designed for the sleep-deprived, poorly nourished, frenzied pace of twenty-first century life.Inspired by the extraordinary resilience of aboriginal groups like the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, Dr. Ilardi prescribes an easy-to-follow, clinically proven program that harks back to what our bodies were originally made for and what they continue to need. The Depression Cure program has already delivered dramatic results, helping even those who have failed to respond to traditional medications.

Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It

Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It
by Kamal Ravikant (Author)

In December of 2011, I gave a talk to an audience of scientists, Pentagon officials, politicians, and CEOs on the secret of life and how I'd figured it out the previous summer. Afterwards, people came up individually and told me how much what I'd shared meant to them. This book is based on the truth I spoke about. It's something I learned from within myself, something I believed saved me. And more than that, the way I set about to do it. This is a collection of thoughts on what I learned, what worked, what didn't. Where I succeed and importantly, where I fail daily. The truth is to love yourself with the same intensity you would use to pull yourself up if you were hanging off a cliff with your fingers. As if your life depended upon it. Once you get going, it's not hard to do. Just...

How to Be Happy (Or at Least Less Sad): A Creative Workbook

How to Be Happy (Or at Least Less Sad): A Creative Workbook
by Lee Crutchley (Author), Oliver Burkeman (Foreword)

Author and illustrator Lee Crutchley brings his lively interactive approach to a little-discussed but very common issue: the struggle with depression and anxiety.
Through a series of supportive, surprising, and engaging prompts, HOW TO BE HAPPY (OR AT LEAST LESS SAD) helps readers see things in a new light, and rediscover simple pleasures and everyday joy…or at least feel a little less sad. By turns a workbook, trusted friend, creative outlet, security blanket, and secret diary, the pages of this book will offer solace, distraction, engagement, a fresh perspective, and hopeful new beginnings—for readers of all ages and walks of life.

Hardcore Self Help: F**k Depression (Volume 2)

Hardcore Self Help: F**k Depression (Volume 2)
by Robert Duff Ph.D. (Author)

Hardcore Self Help: F**k Depression is the follow up to the best-selling F**K Anxiety. In this book I take the information, tips, and insights that I have gained as a psychologist and translate them into language that doesn’t suck. This is the self-help book for people that don’t usually like self-help books. In Hardcore Self Help: F**K Depression, I talk to you like a friend. That means I speak directly to you without psychobabble. Instead I tell you why your brain is such a troll. I explain why you have literally no energy or motivation. I tell you why people are so terrible at offering help. Best of all, I tell you how to take realistic steps toward solving these and many other issues caused by depression.

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
by David D. Burns (Author)

The good news is that anxiety, guilt, pessimism, procrastination, low self-esteem, and other "black holes" of depression can be cured without drugs. In Feeling Good, eminent psychiatrist, David D. Burns, M.D., outlines the remarkable, scientifically proven techniques that will immediately lift your spirits and help you develop a positive outlook on life. Now, in this updated edition, Dr. Burns adds an All-New Consumer′s Guide To Anti-depressant Drugs as well as a new introduction to help answer your questions about the many options available for treating depression.

- Recognise what causes your mood swings
- Nip negative feelings in the bud
- Deal with guilt
- Handle hostility and criticism
- Overcome addiction to love and approval
- Build self-esteem

The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (Book & CD)

The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (Book & CD)
by Mark Williams (Author), John Teasdale (Author), Zindel Segal (Author), Jon Kabat-Zinn (Author)

If you’ve ever struggled with depression, take heart. Mindfulness, a simple yet powerful way of paying attention to your most difficult emotions and life experiences, can help you break the cycle of chronic unhappiness once and for all.

In The Mindful Way through Depression, four uniquely qualified experts explain why our usual attempts to “think” our way out of a bad mood or just “snap out of it” lead us deeper into the downward spiral. Through insightful lessons drawn from both Eastern meditative traditions and cognitive therapy, they demonstrate how to sidestep the mental habits that lead to despair, including rumination and self-blame, so you can face life’s challenges with greater resilience. Jon Kabat-Zinn gently and encouragingly narrates the accompanying...

Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration

Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration
by Meera Lee Patel (Author)

Start Where You Are is an interactive journal designed to help readers nurture their creativity, mindfulness, and self-motivation. It helps readers navigate the confusion and chaos of daily life with a simple reminder: that by taking the time to know ourselves and what those dreams are, we can appreciate the world around us and achieve our dreams.

Featuring vibrant hand-lettering and images that have attracted a large following for her stationery and textile line in boutiques across the country, Meera Lee Patel's uplifting book presents supportive prompts and exercises along with inspirational quotes to encourage reflection through writing, drawing, chart-making, and more.

Featuring inspiring quotes from writers, artists, and other visionaries paired with open-ended...

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
by Brene Brown (Author)

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, a leading expert on shame, authenticity, and belonging, shares ten guideposts on the power of Wholehearted living—a way of engaging with the world from a place of worthiness. Each day we face a barrage of images and messages from society and the media telling us who, what, and how we should be. We are led to believe that if we could only look perfect and lead perfect lives, we'd no longer feel inadequate. So most of us perform, please, and perfect, all the while thinking, "What if I can't keep all of these balls in the air? Why isn't everyone else working harder and living up to my expectations? What will people think if I fail or give up? When can I stop proving myself?" In her ten guideposts, Brown engages our minds, hearts, and spirits as...

The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression: A Step-by-Step Program

The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression: A Step-by-Step Program
by William J. Knaus EdD (Author), Albert Ellis PhD (Author)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most widely used treatment for depression for one simple reason: it works. The CBT program in this workbook has helped thousands of readers defeat the depressive thoughts and beliefs that keep them from enjoying life and feeling like themselves. Used alone or in conjunction with therapy, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression delivers evidence-based tools you can confidently use to do better, feel better, and prevent depression from coming back.Through a series of worksheets and exercises, you’ll evaluate your depression and learn key skills for overcoming it. Once you have your depression symptoms under control, you will appreciate the additional information on preventing relapse that is special to this new edition. This workbook also...

© 2016