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Depression may cause us to age faster biologically than we do chronologically.
Even though we use chronological age to mark our progress in life, age actually is determined by physiology which includes changes in the physical structure of the body, decrease in motor skill performance, and reduced sensory awareness.
A new study published in Molecular Psychiatry shows that depression can speed up the aging process in our cells. This is measured by the length of our telomeres, the end of our chromosomes that are home to our DNA. As cells divide the telomeres get shorter, so their length is one way to measure cellular aging.
While several factors can make the length of our telomeres shorter, such as alcohol and tobacco use, researchers found that even after accounting for such factors, individuals who were or had been depressed had shorter telomeres than those who had never been depressed. They found that those who had experienced the most severe depression had the shortest telomeres.
Medical research already has shown that individuals who experience major depression face increased risk of diseases whose rates increase with age such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Some of this is due to unhealthy behaviors, but the new research suggests that depression itself may also play a role as the body reacts to the distress it causes. The shorter telomeres were found only in individuals with major depression, not in those with mild or moderate depressive symptoms even if they lasted for decades.
The research did not find a link between telomere length and the risk of death, and it could not draw conclusions on whether the aging involved is harmful or can be reversed.