A new study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) confirms
the relationship between depression and
abdominal obesity, which has been linked to an increased risk for cancer
and cardiovascular disease.
"We found that in a sample of young adults during a 15-year period,
those who started out reporting high levels of depression gained weight
at a faster rate than others in the study, but starting out overweight
did not lead to changes in depression," said UAB Assistant Professor of
Sociology Belinda Needham, PhD. The study appears in the June issue of
the American Journal of Public Health.
"Our study is important because if you are interested in controlling
obesity, and ultimately eliminating the risk of obesity-related
diseases, then it makes sense to treat people's depression," said
Needham, who teaches in the UAB department of sociology and social work. "It's another reason to take depression seriously and not to think
about it just in terms of mental health, but to also think about the
physical consequences of mental health problems."
Needham examined data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in
Young Adults (CARDIA) study, a longitudinal study of 5,115 men and women
ages 18-30 that aimed to identify the precursors of cardiovascular
disease. Needham studied the data to test whether body mass index (BMI) —
weight divided by the square of one's height — and waist circumference
were associated with increases in depression or whether depression was
associated with changes in BMI and waist circumference during a period
CARDIA study scientists weighed and measured the waist circumference
and BMI of study participants. The waist circumference was measured to
the nearest half centimeter. CARDIA researchers also asked study
participants in years five, 10, 15 and 20 to rank their own level of
"Looking at the CARDIA sample data, we found that everyone, as a
whole, gained weight during the 15-year period of time that we
examined," said Needham. "However, the people who started out reporting
high levels of depression increased in abdominal obesity and BMI at a
faster rate than those who reported fewer symptoms of depression at year
five. In year five, the waist circumference of the high-depression
group was about 1.6 centimeters greater than those who reported low
She added, "By year 20, the waist circumference of the high-depression
group was about 2.6 centimeters higher than those who reported lower
levels of depression. In contrast, a high initial BMI and waist
circumference did not influence the rate of change in symptoms of
depression over time".
Needham said there have been reports showing that cortisol, a stress
hormone, is related to depression and abdominal obesity. "So, there is
reason to suspect that people who are depressed would have higher levels
of abdominal obesity versus other parts of the body because of elevated
cortisol," she said.
More studies are needed to determine the underlying causes for weight
gain among those who reported being depressed, Needham said.