Depression: Does It Have Genetic Causes?

Medically Reviewed By Jeffrey Ditzell, DO
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Genetic and environmental factors play a part in how likely people are to experience depression in their lifetime. However, there are not yet definitive answers as to the specific genetic causes of depression. In 2019, roughly 19.4 million adults living in the United States had one or more significant depressive episodes. That accounts for 7.8% of the U.S. adult population.

So far, studies into the genetic causes of depression have not been extensive. Historically, they have also shown mixed results. However, researchers believe that depression can run in families.

This article goes into further detail about the genetic causes behind depression. It also discusses other possible causes of the condition and explains ways to treat and manage depression.

Is depression hereditary?

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Some experts believe that there is a ratio of 2:3 in terms of genetic and environmental factors, respectively, being the causes of depression.

There are clear family links to depression in several scientific studies, according to one 2018 review.

For example, research in the review showed a two- to threefold increase in the likelihood of depression among people whose parents had depression. The researchers also mentioned that family links to depression seemed even stronger if the condition was more severe. However, this can vary depending on which parent a child inherits the condition from.

However, this does not mean that family links are definite. Lots of people with depression do not have any family members with the condition. Similarly, people who do have a relative with depression may find that they never experience it themselves.

It is also important to remember that what many people may refer to as “depression” may be an umbrella term for many different conditions that could each have their own genetic causes.

Specific genes

Over 100 different genes may have links to depression, according to one 2018 review. However, the research the review draws this information from does not give a clear idea of the specific genes and their definitive links to depression.

The sections below look at some specific genes that may have links with depression.

LHPP gene

One 2020 study mentions that there are links between major depressive disorder and the LHPP gene but acknowledges that its mechanisms are mostly unknown.

It could be that the negative effects of LHPP on the thyroid could play a part in depression, as conditions involving the thyroid can have links to depression.

The researchers called for further studies into the effects of the LHPP gene on the hippocampal-cortical neural system in the brain, which could play a role in the symptoms of depression.

SIRT1 gene

As well as the LHPP gene, the researchers behind a 2018 study found links between depression and malfunctions in the SIRT1 gene in various studies.

For example, in studies involving mice, the researchers found that the activation of the SIRT1 gene promoted antidepressant and antianxiety effects in the animals.

However, the researchers also noted that this gene can sometimes have the opposite effect. They went on to state that these differences could be the result of the different genetic backgrounds of the groups of mice in the studies.

Genes that help depression

Some genes may have links with a positive response to treatment for depression or the ability to help prevent depression.

These genes include:

  • NR3C1
  • CRHBP
  • CRHR1
  • CRHR2
  • AVPR1A

More research is necessary in order to fully understand the effects that these genes can have on depression. Still, this information may lead to breakthroughs in treatment options for people with depression.

Other causes of depression

Although genetics plays a significant role in depression, the condition may not occur at all without other triggers.

The following sections look at some possible depression triggers in more detail.

Environmental factors

Depression can develop following environmental factors or lifestyle-related challenges. These include:

  • substance misuse
  • the use of certain medications
  • stressful life events, such as divorce or the death of a loved one
  • relationship troubles
  • social isolation
  • unemployment
  • financial issues
  • childhood abuse or neglect

Events such as these can cause a lot of stress, and depression can occur as a result of this. You can discuss management methods and general mental health with your doctor or a therapist.

Physical illness

If you develop a physical condition, it can affect you mentally as well. This may be due to the low mood and stress that physical illnesses can cause.

However, some illnesses can change some parts of the body that can cause depression, even if the condition does not make you feel low.

For example, certain cancers and conditions that compromise the immune system can cause physical changes that can cause depression.

Learn more about conditions that can lead to depression here.

Aging

Sometimes, people develop depression partly due to brain changes they experience as they age.

Late-onset depression can occur in older adults and may appear as more of a psychotic or melancholic type of depression. It can also happen in people who experience dementia.

In some cases, experiencing high blood pressure with age can also contribute to the onset of depression.

Personality types

Some research has shown links between the likelihood of the onset or duration of depression and certain personality types.

For example, this may apply to people who:

  • have high levels of anxiety, who may worry a lot or seem irritable
  • are shy and seem reserved or keen to avoid social situations
  • criticize themselves or show low self-worth
  • are very sensitive to other people’s experiences
  • identify as perfectionists
  • are more focused on themselves and less on the world or those around them

Learn seven facts about depression here.

How to treat and manage depression

Some people with depression find that medications or therapy can help them treat or manage the condition. Other people find that a combination of both is the most effective method. This may especially be the case for those with more severe or long lasting depression.

Treatment may involve:

  • Making lifestyle changes: Some people find that making changes to their lifestyle can help them manage the symptoms of depression. These can be very effective, but it does not mean that a person has caused their depression through their lifestyle choices. For example, exercising and following a healthy, balanced diet may be as effective as some medications in treating depression. Quitting smoking can also be beneficial. You can also try mindfulness practices such as breathing exercises.
  • Taking medications: Antidepressant medications can work well to help ease the symptoms of depression. They may take a few weeks to begin to have an effect, and people may find that their appetite, sleep, and concentration levels improve before their mood starts to lift. Never stop taking antidepressants without first discussing it with your doctor.
  • Trying psychotherapy: Many different types of therapy exist for people with depression, including cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy. Your doctor will work with you to help determine which type is right for you. Therapy can help change your mindset and behavioral patterns and help you deal with any trauma that you may be processing.
  • Trying electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): People may choose to undergo ECT if they have found that medications and psychotherapy have not worked for them and they are at high risk of suicide. People often find that they notice positive effects on depression within a week of starting this treatment, but ECT does have some side effects. A doctor will discuss the pros and cons of this treatment with you.
  • Trying alternative treatments: For example, some people find that cannabidiol helps reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is worth mentioning that there have not been any scientific studies that definitively prove that this treatment form can be effective for depression.

Treatment for depression may take time and commitment before it becomes effective. You may not find that the first treatment option you try is the most effective.
If possible, keep a strong support group around you in the form of family and friends or online support groups. Also, work with your doctor, and be open with them about how you are feeling.

Learn more about treating depression here.

When to contact a doctor

It is best to contact your doctor as soon as possible if you are experiencing symptoms of depression. Lots of people wait longer and, therefore, delay effective treatment.

Speak with your doctor if you experience depression for most of the day each day for a period of at least 2 weeks.

During the appointment

It can be helpful to note down what you want to express to your doctor beforehand to make the most of the appointment.

A physician might ask you questions about:

  • how you have been feeling, including any particular thoughts or behaviors you have noticed
  • your lifestyle
  • recent events in your life that could be having a negative effect on your health
  • the quality of your sleep
  • your appetite
  • your and your family’s medical histories

Your doctor may also perform some tests to check your physical health. For example, they may take your blood pressure or check your pulse. They may also recommend blood tests.
Learn what doctors want you to know about depression here.

Summary

Genetics does seem to play a role in depression, but most often, it is a combination of genetics and environmental or other factors that cause the condition to occur.

More research is necessary to confirm the links between genetics and depression, but scientists have already made several breakthroughs in this field.

If you think that you may have depression, speak with your doctor as soon as possible. There are many treatment options available that will help you treat or manage the condition.

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Medical Reviewer: Jeffrey Ditzell, DO
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 27
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.