A study was published by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan exploring the impact of adequate social support in decreasing the risk of developing depression in genetically vulnerable people who are going through an extremely stressful time. The study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry on 11 January 2023.
This study focused on analyzing two groups of people who were going through a stressful period in their life. The first group was medical interns in their first year of training and the second group was older widowed individuals.
Which studies did researchers use to access data?
The study utilized data from two long-term studies that collected various types of data involving mood, genetic, and environmental data from the study participants. The first study was the Intern Health study. In this study, first-year medical residents from the USA and other countries were enrolled. The second study from which researchers utilized data was the Health and Retirement study at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and it was funded by the National Institute on Aging. The focus of the second study was the older individuals who had lost their partner and didn’t have adequate social support.
The current study studied 1011 medical interns in training in the USA and 435 widowed participants. Half of the medical interns were female while 71% of the widowed individuals were female. Both of the study participants were going through a significantly stressful time in their lives, the first group had started long and irregular hours of work away from their personal support systems and the second group had suffered the loss of their partner that is known to be one of the biggest stressors of life. During the first year, there was a significant increase in depressive symptoms around 126% in 1st year interns while these symptoms increased by 34% in widowed individuals.
Focus of this study?
After this, the team of researchers analyzed each individual’s inherited risk of depression and their social support system. The interns with a high genetic risk for depression and who had good social support systems had low symptoms of depression while those who with high risk for depression and had lost their social support system exhibited high depressive symptoms. The first type of interns fared even better than first-year interns who had a low risk of developing depression.
Similarly, the widowed individuals who had a high risk for depression and who developed some sort of social support mechanism after the loss of their partners fared better than other widowed individuals who had a high risk of depression and lost their social support mechanisms too. In this group, it was also observed that there were many individuals whose symptoms didn’t change regardless of whether they had social support or not.
The researchers concluded that the study clearly showed if people, who are genetically at risk for developing depression, are going through a stressful period of time and develop adequate social support systems, they may fare significantly better in preventing depression.
Scientists believe that these findings will highlight the gene-environment interactions in developing depression and how social support is a significant way to tackle the environmental bit of it. They hope that further research is directed towards these interactions and they state that understanding the key factors like loss of sleep, inadequate social support, stressors at work and other stressors can help understand the ways to develop individualized approaches to preventing and treating depression.
What is the importance of this study?
The current study provides thorough insights into how people at risk for developing depression can prevent the development of their symptoms and how people, in general, can help those who are at risk around them. It is intuitively understandable that connecting with other people during stressful events in life helps tackle the situation better. This study provides evidence for it.
It also highlights how genetic and environmental factors interact to give rise to depressive symptoms. These findings can be utilized to assess other groups of people who are genetically vulnerable in a similar manner and to develop preventive and treatment approaches specifically for those people. These findings can also help develop professional help programs for people at work and can help create awareness about the importance of supporting each other through distressful events in life. Furthermore, this study can stimulate further research examining the role of social support in individuals who are genetically at risk for other mental health conditions.
As mentioned by the researchers, this genetic scoring they used is not validated for use for people from other backgrounds than European Ancestry and this will need to be considered when studying other populations. The details of authorship, relevant university, and information about funding are available on the mentioned link.
Polygenic Risk and Social Support in Predicting Depression Under Stress (Accessed on March 15, 2023)