Depression May Increase Risk of Developing an Autoimmune Disease Interview with:

Andrea L. Roberts, MPH, PhD Research Associate, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Dr. Roberts

Andrea L. Roberts, MPH, PhD
Research Associate, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health What is the background for this study?

Response: There is some evidence that depression may increase risk of autoimmune diseases. For example, among people with autoimmune diseases, more people have depression than in the general population. Also, people who have autoimmune diseases who also have depression have more severe disease symptoms. Why was this study important? 

Response: There have been relatively few studies that follow people over time to see whether people who are depressed are more likely to develop new cases of autoimmune disease, compared to people who are not depressed.  Studies like that provide stronger evidence that depression may increase risk of developing new autoimmune disease. What did you do in your study?

Response: We conducted research in two cohorts of women (the Nurses’ Health Study I and II) that included more than 100,000 women, and we followed them for 20 years, recording depression diagnosis, high depression symptoms, antidepressant use, and new cases of lupus (systemic lupuserythematosus), a systemic autoimmune disease. What are the main findings? 

Response: We found that depression by any of these criteria was associated with more than 2 and a half times greater risk of developing lupus.  In addition, health behaviors, like smoking and being overweight, accounted for only a small part of this increased risk. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Patients with depression should be screened for family history of lupus and symptoms of lupus, which  may improve its early detection.  In addition, people with depression are at risk of several inflammation-related diseases.  Encouragement of people with depression to reduce risk factors for inflammation, such as improving diet quality and increasing physical activity may reduce their risk for lupus as well as other inflammation-related conditions, such as cardiovascular disease.

More generally, readers should know that the evidence linking mental health with physical health is increasingly strong.  Treating and preventing mental health conditions should be a greater priority, as depression and other mental health conditions often go untreated in the US. 


Roberts AL, Kubzansky LD, Malspeis S, Feldman CH, Costenbader KH. Association of Depression With Risk of Incident Systemic Lupus Erythematosus in Women Assessed Across 2 Decades. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online September 12, 2018. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.2462





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