Does Depression Run in Families?

From red-haired curls to dimpled cheeks, certain characteristics run in families. But not every inherited trait is as harmless as a dimpled cheek. Some families struggle with a darker legacy: depression. People who live with this mental illness aren't just blue-they often feel hopeless, helpless, and, in the most serious cases, suicidal. The symptoms are profound enough that it becomes hard to live everyday life. But does depression really run in families? And if it does, can you do anything to prevent it? Here are the answers you need to build a healthier life:

Can depression be inherited?

Like so many disorders, there are no clear-cut answers. Experts do know that having a parent, sibling, or child with depression increases your chance of developing it. For example, one study examined several generations of families who had survived a devastating earthquake in Armenia. Researchers discovered that about 60% of depression experienced after the event had a genetic link, suggesting that our DNA plays at least some role in raising the risk for depression.

Scientists are just beginning to uncover the reasons behind that link. A recent study published in the journal Neuron revealed that one specific gene, SLC6A15, may factor into determining which individuals have a higher risk for depression. Researchers are hopeful that their discovery will aid the development of more targeted - and thus more effective - antidepressants in the next several years [1].

Recent mental health research also suggests that people living with depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus-a structure in the brain-than those who don't live with the disorder. This area of the brain processes emotions and memories as well as produces the stress-relieving hormone serotonin. What experts don't know yet, however, is whether having a smaller hippocampus triggers depression, or whether the higher levels of stress hormones in depressed people actually shrinks that part of the brain [2]. What is clear is that depression is a complex mental disorder that will be fully understood only with the help of ongoing research.

If depression runs in my family, does that mean I'll definitely get the illness?

No. The link between depression and genetics is apparent in some cases, but there are non-genetic factors that also increase one's risk for developing the condition. These factors include:

  • Experiencing trauma as a child
  • Having few personal relationships
  • Suffering from a serious medical condition, like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Living with chronic pain
  • Taking certain medications, like some used to treat high blood pressure
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Suffering a significant loss

Can I reduce my risk of getting depression?

Depression is believed to be caused, at least in part, by a chemical imbalance in the brain. As a result, it's impossible to prevent every single case. However, lifestyles changes can reduce your symptoms when they do occur, and may even prevent episodes from happening. A good way to become more resilient to depression is by reducing stress and adapting a healthy mindset. Following are several practical tips to reduce your risk of depression and maintain good mental health:

  • Learn to manage your stress. When it comes to triggering a depressive episode, stress is one of the leading culprits. While there is no way to completely eliminate stress from everyday life, we can learn the stress management techniques that will keep anxiety in check. Start by finding a simple stress reliever you can use on the go, from meditating in the car before grocery shopping to squeezing a stress ball while you're on the phone with your boss.
  • Stay connected to others. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are also prime triggers for major depression. One way to reduce symptoms is to maintain healthy relationships with a network of people. For example, if you don't have close family nearby, you might join a church community or sign up for an intramural sports league.
  • Break a sweat. Whether you choose jogging in the park or kickboxing at the gym, regular exercise is a healthy way to alleviate the anxious feelings that jumpstart depressive episodes. Schedule physical exercise-at least 2 or 3 times a week-to flood the body with the natural chemicals that decrease stress hormones and build self-confidence.
  • Maintain your mental health. Even if you don't suffer from symptoms of depression now, you might find it helpful to talk with someone able to guide you through any stress and anxiety. Consider working with a mental health professional or joining a local or online support group. Whether you choose face-to-face therapy or an online forum for support, you'll benefit from the insight others can provide.
  • Eat well. It's hard to maintain good mental health when the body isn't nourished properly. Review the types of foods you're eating and pinpoint the trouble spots that make your body operate at less than 100%. For example, if you have a sweet tooth, reduce the amount of sugary drinks and treats you indulge in. Not a veggie person? Start benefiting from their brain-boosting power by finding one or two you like, and begin to incorporate those into your diet. Once eating those veggies becomes a habit, gradually add other vegetables to your diet.
  • Limit alcohol and drug use. Many people who struggle with depression also struggle with alcohol or drug abuse. While moderation is a good policy for anyone, it's especially important for those with a genetic predisposition to depression. Limit your drinking and eliminate all illicit drug use.
  • Communicate with your health care professional. Let primary care doctors or physician assistants know that clinical depression runs in the family. This will alert him or her that you may be at risk for developing the condition.

Depression often does run in families, but you can take action to protect yourself from the disorder. Take steps to begin reducing your stress and improving your emotional health today.

Posted on December 19th, 2012
Posted in Depression

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