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People who adopt healthy habits can reduce risk of depressive episodes, studies say

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There are lots of medicines to treat depression, and many people benefit from them. But new research points to effective ways to prevent it. Two new studies show that people who adopt healthy habits can significantly reduce the risk of depressive episodes. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: As part of the Stanford Center on Longevity, there's a team of researchers and health care providers who focus on lifestyle medicine. This means they don't just prescribe medications. They take a more integrative and preventive approach. I spoke to Dr. Douglas Noordsy. He's a psychiatrist with the program.

DOUGLAS NOORDSY: We aren't just saying, oh, you're depressed; here's a prescription for Prozac. And we're actually thinking in a more detailed way about a person's lifestyle behaviors and help them to make changes that may be really important in their long-term mental health.

AUBREY: To this end, a new study provides more evidence that this is a helpful strategy. It shows people's daily habits, including how much they sleep, what they eat and drink, how they socialize and exercise, play a significant role in their risk of depression. Here's study author Barbara Sahakian, a clinical psychologist at the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry.

BARBARA SAHAKIAN: I think the biggest surprise is that if you have a favorable lifestyle, you can reduce the risk of getting depression by 57%, which is really quite a massive amount.

AUBREY: They identified seven healthy habits. At the top of the list is sleep. The study showed a good night's rest is key.

SAHAKIAN: Sleeping is incredibly important for your mood and your emotional regulation.

AUBREY: Seven to 9 hours of sleep a night is optimal for most people. And next on the list is how we nourish ourselves.

SAHAKIAN: I always recommend the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet. They're both very good diets. And not only are they good for your health and your well-being and your brain and cognition, but they also have been shown to help people live longer.

AUBREY: Both of these diets emphasize the same things - lots of greens, lean proteins and plant-based fats like olive oil and avocados. And when it comes to what you drink, many people think of alcohol as a social elixir. But having more than a drink or two a night on a regular basis can actually drag you down, as alcohol slows the central nervous system.

SAHAKIAN: So we know that if you have excessive alcohol, that can often lead to depression.

AUBREY: And when it comes to physical activity, Stanford's Douglas Noordsy points to the evidence that exercise can have a longer-lasting effect than medications at keeping depression at bay.

NOORDSY: Antidepressant medicines are somewhat faster in treating an episode of depression, but physical exercise has more durable effects than an antidepressant does. And we've all heard about Prozac burnout and that people get a benefit in the beginning, but then they end up feeling kind of blunted and may lose that effect over time because our brains adapt, and whereas a lifestyle change can have a more permanent and lasting effect.

AUBREY: After exercise, other habits that may help fend off depression involve spending time with family and friends.

SAHAKIAN: We found that older adults, if they were socially isolated, they had a much higher risk of getting dementia.

AUBREY: And making time for hobbies you enjoy is another way. People who have hobbies report higher life satisfaction.

Barbara Sahakian says if parents and schools modeled and prioritized all these healthy habits for kids, we may have healthier communities since habits learned early in life tend to stick. And though it's probably not possible to eliminate depression - some people are genetically susceptible - and many people benefit from medicine and therapy, Dr. Noordsy says it's also possible for some people to alter their habits with the right kind of help.

NOORDSY: I certainly see some people who can effectively manage their symptoms with lifestyle interventions alone.

AUBREY: The evidence shows there's not one habit or one choice that helps people thrive. It's all of these things together over a lifetime that seem to make a difference.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.