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Social Connection as the Strongest Protective Factor for Depression—New Study Identifies

Active social connection is the most influential protective factor for depression, Additionally, reducing sedentary activities such as watching TV or taking a nap can also help lower depression risk.

Social connection is the process by which people interact with each other and share feelings, ideas, and experiences. It can be thought of as a way of connecting with others and building relationships.

Prior studies have shown social connection as an important for both our physical and mental health (Tough et al., 2017) . It can promote happiness and well-being, help us feel connected to others, and help us learn and improve our skills. It can also promote social justice and create positive change in our communities.

A new study recently reports that active social connection is the most influential protective factor for depression. The study provides further evidence that reducing sedentary activities such as watching TV or taking a nap can also help lower depression risk.

In the study, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have identified a set of modifiable factors from a field of 106 that could represent valuable targets for preventing depression in adults.

Published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, the study found that social connection as the most potent protective factor for depression and suggested that reducing sedentary activities such as TV watching and daytime napping could also help lower the risk of depression (Choi et al., 2020).

The Study

social connection

In the study, the researchers collected information from a database of over 100,000 participants in the UK Biobank. They investigated the impact of 106 modifiable factors, including lifestyle (e.g., exercise, sleep, media, diet), social (e.g., support, engagement), and environmental (e.g., green space, pollution) variables.

Then, they applied a statistical method called Mendelian randomization (MR) to investigate which factors may have a causal relationship to depression risk.  Using the technique, the researchers shortlisted promising and potentially causal targets for depression.

They found various factors across social, sleep, media, dietary, and exercise-related domains were prospectively associated with depression, even among at-risk individuals.

However, the researcher found only a few subset of factors was supported by Mendelian randomization evidence, including confiding in others (odds ratio=0.76, 95% CI=0.67, 0.86), television watching time (odds ratio=1.09, 95% CI=1.05, 1.13), and daytime napping (odds ratio=1.34, 95% CI=1.17, 1.53).

Social Connection A Protective Factor

According to the authors, ‘the protective effects of social connection including visiting friends and family were present even for individuals who were at higher risk for depression as a result of genetic vulnerability or early life trauma’.

On the other hand, factors associated with depression risk included time spent watching TV, the tendency for daytime napping, and regular use of multivitamins appeared to be associated with depression risk.

About TV watching the authors noted that additional research is needed to determine if that risk was due to media exposure per se or whether time in front of the TV was a proxy for being sedentary.

Significance

In conclusion, the authors mentioned that their study validates several actionable targets for preventing depression. In observational research, only a few factors associated with depression can be targeted for the prevention of depression—the authors mentioned.

Related Publication and Further Readings

Choi, K. W., M. B. Stein, et al. (2020). “An Exposure-Wide and Mendelian Randomization Approach to Identifying Modifiable Factors for the Prevention of Depression.” Am J Psychiatry 177(10): 944-954.

Tough, H., J. Siegrist, et al. (2017). “Social relationships, mental health and wellbeing in physical disability: a systematic review.” BMC Public Health 17(1): 414.

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