Research indicates that genes do make some people more likely to develop depression than others. However, it is not a hereditary disease in the same way that some other conditions are.

Hereditary diseases occur due to alterations in specific genes or chromosomes. Depression does not occur due to a specific genetic change in a single gene.

Instead, multiple genes interact with one another to raise a person’s risk. Environmental, social, and psychological factors also play a role. No risk factor guarantees a person will develop the condition, though.

This article discusses whether depression is hereditary and what factors increase the risk. It also examines what to do if depression runs in the family, whether it is permanent, and when to seek help.

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Genetics plays a significant role in a person’s risk of developing depression. However, it is not a solely hereditary condition.

A hereditary condition is one that occurs due to a mutation, or change, in a specific gene or chromosome. For example, cystic fibrosis is a hereditary condition. If a person inherits a copy of the gene for cystic fibrosis from both parents, they will have the disease from birth.

Depression works differently. It is a multifactorial condition, meaning many factors contribute to its development. These factors can be:

  • biological
  • environmental
  • social
  • psychological

Scientists know there is a strong genetic component because of twin studies. Identical twins share the exact same genes, so researchers can study them to see if genetics or environment play a bigger role in the development of diseases.

The American Psychiatric Association states that if one identical twin has depression, the other twin has a 70% risk of developing it. This indicates that genes play a big role in a person’s predisposition to depression.

An older 2000 review of five twin studies found a 37% heritability rate for depression. The review also found that there was a two- to threefold increase in the risk of depression in the children of parents with depression.

However, it is important to note that genetics do not make depression inevitable.

In addition to genetics, environmental risk factors play an important role in depression. These are things that come from a person’s environment, such as their home, school, or neighborhood, that have a negative impact on health.

Some of the environmental factors that can contribute to depression include frequent exposure to:

  • violence
  • abuse
  • neglect
  • poverty

Traumatic events, whether they happened recently or in the past, can also contribute. This is especially true of events that happen in childhood, which have links to the development of depression later in life, possibly because of how they affect brain development.

Due to social inequity, some people are more likely to experience the above stressors than others. This includes people from lower income backgrounds, who may experience:

  • job or financial insecurity
  • housing insecurity
  • food insecurity
  • lack of access to healthcare

Any of these circumstances can create chronic stress, which has an impact on mental health. Similarly, people from marginalized groups can also experience discrimination, which has an association with depression.

A person’s relationships and support network also affect depression risk. For example, a 2019 study of single mothers notes that inadequate social support correlated with higher rates of depression, as well as being a migrant and having experienced mistreatment by former partners.

Psychological factors for depression include a person’s individual personality and beliefs. For example, people who are generally pessimistic, have low self-esteem, or have low resilience to stress may be more likely to develop depression.

People may wonder whether genetics or environmental factors have a stronger influence on the risk of depression. A 2018 study suggests that it depends on a person’s age.

The authors explored the causes of depression using data from 43,427 twins. Analysis indicated that in childhood, genetic and environmental factors are equally important in accounting for the association between well-being and depression. In contrast, genetics appears more important in adolescence and adulthood.

If a person is concerned that they may have an elevated risk of depression, there are steps they can take to proactively look after their mental health. This includes:

Getting moving

Research from 2019 reports that exercise can be as effective as first-line antidepressant treatments for depression. Unlike medications, it also has a low risk of side effects.

Staying connected

A strong social support system decreases feelings of isolation and can be a source of connection and meaning. A person can try:

  • maintaining contact with family and friends
  • volunteering
  • joining a group or class

Getting enough sleep

When people frequently do not get enough sleep, it can affect their mental health. A person should aim to get 7–9 hours of sleep each night. If getting to sleep is difficult or a person frequently wakes up, it may be necessary to speak with a doctor.

Spending time outdoors every day

Exposure to sunlight provides vitamin D, which elevates mood. Even opening the curtains during the day to allow in more sunlight can help.

Eating a nutritious diet

A 2020 review examined the effect of diet on depression. It discovered that following a healthy eating plan may help significantly to prevent depression. The authors recommend that people:

  • Eat nutritious foods, including:
    • fruits
    • vegetables
    • nuts
    • legumes
    • fish
    • olive oil
  • Severely limit or exclude unhealthy foods, including:
    • processed meats, such as sausage
    • sweets
    • sodas
    • juices
  • Consume food with these micronutrients:

Reducing stress

Stress can worsen existing depression and increase the risk of future episodes. Relaxation and stress management can help protect against this.

A 2019 study involving 50 participants found that progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) may reduce the symptoms of depression. PMR entails tensing and then relaxing particular muscle groups.

Depression is not necessarily permanent. Some people can have a depressive spell and then recover fully.

For others, depression is a long-term condition that recurs. This is known as major depressive disorder (MDD). According to a 2022 research article, the recurrence rate for MDD is approximately 50% after the first episode, 70% after the second, and 90% after the third.

Anyone who has felt persistently down, sad, angry, or numb can speak with a doctor at any time to get help. Doing this sooner will mean a person can access treatment more quickly.

A person does not need to wait until symptoms become severe before getting support. Speaking with a doctor or mental health professional early may help prevent depression from progressing.

If a person does not have symptoms but is concerned about their depression risk, they can also speak with a medical professional for advice on how to look after their mental health.

People with severe symptoms or thoughts of suicide should seek help immediately.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Genetics have a significant impact on a person’s risk of depression, but other factors also play a role. This includes environmental factors, such as prolonged exposure to abuse or poverty. A person’s outlook on themselves and the world may also influence their risk.

If depression runs in a person’s family, they can take steps to protect their mental well-being. Examples involve getting regular exercise and staying connected to others.

Where possible, people with concerns about depression or potential symptoms should seek professional help or advice. Do not delay in getting medical attention if the symptoms are severe.