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Genetic study establishes strong link between obesity and depression

Health

Researchers in Australia and the UK have found the strongest evidence yet linking obesity and depression, even in the absence of other health problems.

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The study from the University of South Australia and University of Exeter in England shows the psychological impact of being overweight causes depression, rather than associated illnesses such as diabetes.

Researchers looked at UK Biobank data from more than 48,000 people with depression, comparing them with a control group of more than 290,000 people born between 1938 and 1971, who provided medical and genetic information.

Hospital data and self-reporting were used to determine whether people had depression.

Director of the Australian Centre for Precision Health at UniSA Professor Elina Hypponen co-led the study and said the team took a genomic approach to the research.

“We separated the psychological component of obesity from the impact of obesity-related health problems using genes associated with higher body mass index (BMI), but with lower risk of diseases like diabetes,” Prof Hypponen said.

“These genes were just as strongly associated with depression as those genes associated with higher BMI and diabetes.

“This suggests that being overweight causes depression both with and without related health issues – particularly in women.”

At the other ends of the BMI spectrum, very thin men are more prone to depression than men of normal weight or very thin women.

The research is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

According to the World Health Organisation, global obesity has almost doubled since 1980 and is the fifth leading risk factor accounting for 2.8 million adult deaths each year.

“The current global obesity epidemic is very concerning,” Prof Hypponen said.

“Alongside depression, the two are estimated to cost the global community trillions of dollars each year.

“Our research shows that being overweight doesn’t just increase the risks of chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, it can also lead to depression.”

The UK Biobank is a study of 500,000 individuals aged between 37 and 73 years recruited from across the UK between 2006-2010. Genetics are available for all individuals.

Obese individuals are classified as people with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 kg/m².

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