Do you have your father’s nose or your mother’s eyes? Perhaps stubbornness is a common family trait, or you all have a similar sense of humor. Many traits run in families, so it’s natural to wonder, is depression genetic, too? Depression and genetics are correlated in some ways, but you are much more than your DNA. If you have a parent or sibling with depression, that doesn’t mean you’ll inevitably develop depression, too. In fact, recent research suggests you could even positively influence the genetic legacy you pass onto future generations.
The Relationship between Depression and Genetics
Depression can sometimes arise in response to events in our lives: the COVID-19 pandemic, stress, chronic pain, or bereavement, for example. So, to what extent is depression genetic? Only 40 percent of the population’s tendency toward depression can be explained by genes. There is no single gene for depression. At least 44 gene variants contribute to the risk of depression from one generation to the next, and research is ongoing to better understand. Even if you were to inherit many of these, you still might not develop depression. Instead, the chance depends on:
- How many of these genes you inherit (each one makes a tiny contribution to the risk of depression)
- Which specific genes you inherit (some matter more than others)
- How this genetic blueprint interacts with other personal factors (such as stress, chronic pain, or illness)
As a result, even if your child were to inherit all these genetic variants from you, he or she would not necessarily develop depression.
How Genes Can Contribute
The genes identified in depression studies are integral parts of the nervous system. They influence how nerve cells grow and send signals to brain regions that influence mood. They control the function of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters (such as serotonin), which are altered in depression. Some genes influence the immune system, which is also linked to our mood. So, could you change the genetic code you pass onto future generations? Possibly. A relatively new scientific field called epigenetics explores how the events in our lives switch the expression—or readability—of our genes without changing the DNA code itself. These life events include early adversity in childhood, trauma, or prolonged stress. Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to these events. The chemical tags turn depression genes on or off.
Subsequently, epigenetic changes can be passed down to the next generation. That means it may be possible to pass on positive epigenetic changes by taking positive steps that actively support your health. These include surrounding yourself with strong social support, engaging in physical activity where possible, and treating symptoms of depression.
Why Depression Seems to Run in Families
If you have a sibling or parent with depression, you have two to three times the chance of developing depression yourself. However, this isn’t solely related to the DNA you share. We know this partly due to studies of identical twins. Even though they have almost no difference in their DNA, if one twin develops depression, the other twin frequently doesn’t. Instead, it’s our experience and environment that matter. Shared life experiences within families can often place closely related people at higher risk for depression. These shared experiences could include early adversity or neglect in childhood, trauma, family pressures, or addiction.
If you have depression just as another member of your family does, your shared experiences could also explain this, rather than your shared DNA. Further, depression often affects not only the person with depression, but their family, too. Family life can feel unsettled, compounded by the financial, social, and physical issues that accompany depression. Finding the right treatment could restore balance to your own life as well as the lives of your loved ones.
Breaking the Cycle of Familial Depression
If you’re ready to begin your treatment journey, empower yourself to take the next steps. Imagine waking up refreshed each morning with hope for the day ahead, passion for the interests you hold, and positive energy to see you through time spent with family and friends. If you have persistent stress, counseling might help you and your family. Consider speaking to your doctor about treating any underlying medical conditions, such as chronic pain or sleep apnea, that exacerbate depression. Or perhaps you’d benefit from an antidepressant medication. If those common approaches don’t work, another way to break the cycle of depression and genetics is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
TMS therapy is a non-invasive and non-drug depression treatment that applies highly focused magnetic pulses to brain regions that are crucial in the regulation of mood. It’s been cleared by the FDA for the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. TMS can help to relieve some, or even all, of the symptoms of depression in many patients. Whichever treatment path you choose, remember: even if depression has been part of your family’s history, it doesn’t need to be part of your future.