Brain Sciences


UCL research shows how depression impacts our brain as we age

15 July 2020

Mental health problems can have long term effects on our physical and cognitive health, according to new UCL-led research highlighting early intervention should be taken seriously to improve ageing outcomes.


New research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that risk factors associated with heart disease and diabetes (known as cardiometabolic risk) may play an important role in the link between depression and cognitive function – particularly memory. This research was funded by the Alzheimer’s Society and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

According to national figures, depression is common and affects one in five of the UK population. Depression can affect how our brain ages and can lead to poorer cognitive function, faster cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia. Cognitive functioning refers to mental processes which allow us to carry out tasks including remembering things, paying attention, language, planning, making decisions and reasoning.

However, we don’t understand why depression and cognitive function are linked together. One explanation is that stress and low mood can affect how our body functions and particularly risk factors associated with heart disease, diabetes and related conditions known as cardiometabolic risk.

This study, led by researchers from the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, is the first to investigate the role of cardiometabolic risk in the link between depression and cognitive function.

Researchers used data from the National Child Development Study (NCDS), a sample of 17,415 people born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week of 1958. Participants in the NCDS have been followed up regularly from birth through to age 55. Depression was measured at ages 23, 33 and 42. Cardiometabolic risk was measured at age 44. Cognitive function was measured at age 50. Results showed that depression from age 23 to 42 was linked with higher cardiometabolic risk which was in turn associated with poorer scores in some cognitive functions.

Lead author Dr Amber John said: “The results show that our mental health is important for both our body and our brain and highlights the importance of taking mental health seriously in order to protect future physical and cognitive health.

“Our findings raise the possibility that early intervention to prevent recurrence of depression symptoms can help to improve cardiometabolic health and to prevent poorer cognitive outcomes later in the life course.”

Dr John said further research is needed to test the hypothesis of whether early intervention to prevent recurrence of depression can help improve cardiometabolic health and prevent poorer cognitive outcomes later in life.