Social Connection – The Important Driver of Mental Health

A new study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry has established “social connection” as the most prominent modifiable factor impacting the risk of developing mental health issues. Additionally, they found that reducing sedentary activities like TV watching and daytime napping lowers the risk of depression, and the regular use of multivitamins can provide overall mental health support. The study was designed to establish actionable strategies for supporting mental health at a time when mental health struggles are the leading cause of disability worldwide. “Our study provides the most comprehensive picture to date of modifiable factors that could impact depression risk,” said Karmel Choi, Ph.D., an investigator in the Department of Psychiatry and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The recent study used a two-stage approach, leveraging cutting-edge technologies to assess large-scale data sets. Before this study, researchers had not looked at such a wide range of risk and protective factors for depression. Jordan Smoller, MD, ScD associate chief for research in the MGH Department of Psychiatry, and senior author of the paper, and his team studied 100,000 adults from the UK Biobank. 

They analyzed various modifiable factors including social interaction, media use, sleep patterns, diet, physical activity, and environmental exposures. This first stage used a method known as exposure-wide association scan (ExWAS). The second stage utilized a technique called Mendelian randomization (MR). This method looked at causal or correlational factors that may impact the onset of depression by looking at genetic variation. The authors of the study stated that this new two-stage approach could be used in other experiments to establish possible preventative factors for other illnesses. Smoller concluded: “We’ve shown that it’s now possible to address these questions of broad public health significance through a large-scale, data-based approach that wasn’t available even a few years ago.”

When we’re asked to suspend the personal benefits of social connection for the excellent health of our communities, it’s important to remember to eat healthily, exercise, and keep in touch with those we love, even if it’s a Zoom call.

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