Healthy Lifestyle Can Help Prevent Depression — and New Research May Explain Why

A healthy lifestyle that involves moderate alcohol consumption, a healthy diet, regular physical activity, healthy sleep and frequent social connection, while avoiding smoking and too much sedentary behaviour, reduces the risk of depression, new research has found.

In research published today in Nature Mental Health, an international team of researchers, including from the University of Cambridge and Fudan University, looked at a combination of factors including lifestyle factors, genetics, brain structure and our immune and metabolic systems to identify the underlying mechanisms that might explain this link.

According to the World Health Organization, around one in 20 adults experiences depression, and the condition poses a significant burden on public health worldwide. The factors that influence the onset of depression are complicated and include a mixture of biological and lifestyle factors.

To better understand the relationship between these factors and depression, the researchers turned to the UK Biobank, a biomedical database and research resource containing anonymised genetic, lifestyle and health information about its participants.

By examining data from almost 290,000 people — of whom 13,000 had depression — followed over a nine-year period, the team was able to identify seven healthy lifestyle factors linked with a lower risk of depression. These were:

  • moderate alcohol consumption
  • healthy diet
  • regular physical activity
  • healthy sleep
  • never smoking
  • low-to-moderate sedentary behaviour
  • frequent social connection

Of all of these factors, having a good night’s sleep — between seven and nine hours a night — made the biggest difference, reducing the risk of depression, including single depressive episodes and treatment-resistant depression, by 22%.

The team then examined the DNA of the participants, assigning each a genetic risk score. This score was based on the number of genetic variants an individual carried that have a known link to risk of depression. Those with the lowest genetic risk score were 25% less likely to develop depression when compared to those with the highest score — a much smaller impact than lifestyle.

In people at high, medium, and low genetic risk for depression, the team further found that a healthy lifestyle can cut the risk of depression. This research underlines the importance of living a healthy lifestyle for preventing depression, regardless of a person’s genetic risk.

The team found that the pathway from lifestyle to immune and metabolic functions was the most significant. In other words, a poorer lifestyle impacts on our immune system and metabolism, which in turn increases our risk of depression.


Yujie Zhao, Liu Yang, Barbara J. Sahakian, Christelle Langley, Wei Zhang, Kevin Kuo, Zeyu Li, Yihan Gan, Yuzhu Li, Yang Zhao, Jintai Yu, Jianfeng Feng, Wei Cheng. The brain structure, immunometabolic and genetic mechanisms underlying the association between lifestyle and depression. Nature Mental Health, 2023; DOI: 10.1038/s44220-023-00120-1

University of Cambridge. (2023, September 11). Healthy lifestyle can help prevent depression — and new research may explain why. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 26, 2023 from

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