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Your Mental Health

Life satisfaction & outlook

It may not come as a surprise to you, but research shows our life satisfaction and risk for depression are linked.

Yes – those with a high degree of satisfaction or contentment with their lives are also at a lower risk for depression while those with a more pessimistic outlook are also the ones more likely to become depressed.

Of course this can raise the question of whether it is a lack of satisfaction with life that causes depression or simply that a depressed person is less likely to feel satisfied. It turns out, both are largely determined by our genetic make up.

A study published out of the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health compared information from 1500 sets of identical and fraternal twins to examine how depression risk is linked with overall lifetime satisfaction.

In the past, studies have found a person’s general life satisfaction tends to be similar over time. If you are satisfied with your life at one point in time, it is likely you will be satisfied at other times as well. This points to an underlying ‘disposition’ or tendency toward a positive or negative outlook.

By using identical twins who share 100 percent of their genetic material as well as fraternal twins who share only 50 percent of their genes, this study was able to determine the extent to which variation and covariation was due to genes or environmental influences.

Results found both men and women studied who met the criteria for depression also reported lower life satisfaction.

Genes could explain three quarters of the relationship between depression and life satisfaction while the remaining one quarter could be explained by environmental factors.

Specific genes were not identified in this study and the authors caution that their data points to the importance of genetics for explaining the differences between people but that estimates may vary across time and place.

But what does all of this mean to us? Is it possible to increase your life satisfaction and thus protect yourself from depression? Or is it all hard wired?

Even though our underlying disposition may be relatively stable over time, and our genes account more for this than our environment, actions in our daily lives can still provide pleasure that is important. Participating in activities we enjoy can certainly contribute to happiness and over time can work to improve our overall life satisfaction.

Depressed individuals who seek appropriate treatment may also find a corresponding improvement in their overall life satisfaction. If you or a loved one are experiencing depression, consider seeking professional help. There are effective treatments available.

Positive impressions of aging

What do you think about getting older? Are you looking forward to your senior years; to wisdom, self-realization and the chance to look with satisfaction at the life you have created?

Or are you dreading the years that make up the latter part of your life? Are you fearful of a changing physical appearance, of medical concerns or a lack of purpose when you’ve finished your career?

According to research, the way we view old age will have quite an impact on the way we experience it.

This may not be entirely surprising to you. In general, our beliefs shape us. The things we hold true – whether about ourselves or the world around us – tend to be evident in our lives because they affect the way we interact with our environment.

Research out of Yale University has found that age stereotypes have an impact on the health of seniors. When stereotypes are negative, individuals are less likely to take preventive medical steps and can even die sooner. They are also more likely to have poor physical functioning and memory loss.

Individuals with a more positive outlook on aging experience better health with higher functioning and are even 44 percent more likely to fully recovery from a disability.

One study followed 660 adults for 23 years between 1975 and 1998. At the start of the study, participants answered questions to gain a sense of their age stereotypes. Among this group, those with positive beliefs about aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative beliefs.

Researchers believe individuals with positive age stereotypes have a stronger will to live, which may help them adapt to the changes of older age. Similarly, those with negative stereotypes may have an increased cardiovascular response to stress.

Another study by the same group found those with positive beliefs about aging were more likely to eat well, exercise, limit alcohol consumption, stop smoking and visit their doctors regularly.

In another study again from the Yale researchers, almost 600 adults aged 70 and older were followed from 1998 to 2008 to examine the impact of age stereotypes on recovery from disability. Again, those with positive beliefs were much more likely to have good results and recover fully.

Beliefs and stereotypes about aging begin early in life and are reinforced by experiences and the way our society and families treat the elderly. North American culture is typically not very good at celebrating or valuing age – and this growing body of research suggests we would do well to change in this area.

Depression and anxiety

It is common to hear people say that certain psychiatric diagnoses are purely a product of our culture – that conditions like depression or anxiety only exist here in the Western world.

Although it is true that different cultures may perceive or label mental health in different ways, new research shows that depression and anxiety exist in every society in the world today.

In two comprehensive studies of depression and anxiety, researchers from the University of Queensland recently published data from some 480,000 people in 91 countries.

In the two separate studies, participants were surveyed about clinical depression and anxiety and both conditions were found to be serious health problems around the world.

Non-Western societies reported less people with anxiety disorders than in Western countries – 10 percent of people in North America, Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand experience clinical anxiety, compared to eight percent of those in the Middle East and six percent of people in Asia.

When it comes to depression, the statistics have an opposite trend – more people are depressed in non-Western societies than in Western ones.

Nine percent of people in Asia and the Middle East experienced clinical depression compared to four percent of those in North and South America, New Zealand, Australia and East Asian countries.

Perhaps not surprisingly, depression is higher in places where there is conflict (although this is not the case with anxiety).

The lead author for the depression study, Alize Ferrari, did caution that data was difficult to get from some of the lower income countries. She also stated that more research is needed into the methods used for diagnosing depression and measuring its prevalence in non-Western countries as well as how it occurs over the life span.

Head researchers from the anxiety study also stated it is tricky to compare mental disorders across different countries and cultures because of the many factors influencing the reported prevalence.

We do know that across cultures, depression and anxiety seem to affect more women than men and that these are chronic health conditions causing significant disability to those who experience them.

Fortunately, there are effective treatments for both depression and anxiety. Medication and behaviour therapy are the primary treatments although poverty, conflict and lack of trained specialists likely make these difficult to access for people in some parts of the world.

While these mental health conditions certainly are not exclusive to Western societies, we are the places with the best access and fewest barriers to treatment.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or an anxiety disorder, speak with your doctor to learn more. Help is available.

'Chemo brain'

If you or someone you love has gone through the trial of chemotherapy for treatment of cancer, you have no doubt heard about many unpleasant side effects.

Nausea, tenderness, hair loss, weakness and fatigue are just a very few common side effects during treatment. The list of difficult symptoms is long and daunting. Once the final round of treatment is complete, the body slowly begins to recover and regain some strength. But even after the bulk of side effects have subsided, many survivors will talk about a phenomenon called ‘chemo brain’.

For some reason, after chemotherapy, between 20 and 30 percent of people experience some cognitive impairment. Symptoms can include: confusion, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, mental fogginess, fatigue, poor attention, difficulty finding the right word, poor memory and others. Symptoms typically last for a few years after treatment.

Until recently, there was some debate about the existence of this ‘chemo brain’ phenomenon but studies have indeed shown it to be a real and measurable side effect of chemotherapy in some people.

Although many people experience temporary cognitive impairment due to the stress, fatigue and depression that goes along with cancer diagnosis and treatment, the longer term symptoms of ‘chemo brain’ are another matter. Interestingly, they seem to mostly affect people experiencing breast, ovarian, prostate or other cancers of the reproductive system.

Studies have now shed some light into what may be causing these symptoms. Researchers at West Virginia University conducted brain imaging studies using PET/CT scans to show a physiological basis for post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment.

In the study, brain metabolism was compared before and after chemotherapy in 128 breast cancer patients. Results showed two brain regions with decreased metabolism after chemotherapy. The affected areas – the superior medial frontal gyrus and the temporal operculum – are known to be involved in prioritizing, problem solving, organizing and long-term memory. Not surprisingly, these are the areas often affected in ‘chemo brain’.

Since we now have more people surviving cancer and also receiving more aggressive chemotherapy treatment, this condition has become increasingly clinically important. Cognitive function can be measured. Ideally a person could have their cognitive functioning assessed before chemotherapy and then again after. This would allow comparison of before and after functioning for a specific individual. Alternatively, if one measures only when symptoms are noticed, one can compare functioning of that individual to an age and education matched control group. This is not as precise, but better than nothing. Cognitive impairment is very hard to assess from interview alone, except in very severe cases.

More research is needed to fully understand the condition, the prognosis for those who experience it and to determine if there are ways it can be prevented, treated or minimized while still effectively targeting the cancer.

Read more Mental Health articles

About the author...

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research and administration. After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar. Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC where he has held many administrative positions and has done numerous clinical trials. He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders. He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.


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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet presents its columns "as is" and does not warrant the contents.

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