The best treatment for depression lies in our evolutionary history

Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. So how do we reverse it?

Johann Hari: There’s a really heartbreaking study that asked Americans, “How many close friends do you have that you can call on in a crisis?” 

And when they started doing it decades ago the most common answer was five. Today the most common answer is none. It’s not the average but it’s the most common answer.

And I thought a lot about that in so many of the places I’ve been in the United States. I interviewed and got to know an incredible man called Professor John Cacioppo, a world expert on loneliness. He’s at the University of Chicago. 

And Professor Cacioppo explained to me, you know, if you think about the circumstances where human beings evolved, right, we evolved—the reason why you’re able to watch this through your laptop or wherever you’re watching it, the reason why we exist is because our ancestors on the savannahs of Africa were really good at one thing. They weren’t bigger than the animals they took down but they were much better at cooperating than them. 

Every human instinct human beings have is to be part of a cooperative tribe, right. Bees need a hive. Humans need a tribe. And if you think about the circumstances where human beings evolved, if you were separated from the group you would become depressed and anxious for an incredibly good reason. You were in terrible danger. You were probably about to die. Those are the instincts we still have. 

Yet we’ve told ourselves a story that we can live without tribes. We are the first human beings ever to try to live without communities, to imagine that like some cowboy on the horizon—and even the cowboys didn’t do it this way—we can live alone, we can be alone. That’s not the species we are. 

And it’s causing, and Professor Cacioppo has proven that this loneliness epidemic is one of the key causes of the epidemic of depression and anxiety that we have across our society.

And I was really interested to find out well, who has acted on that? Who has tried to find an antidepressant for the loneliness crisis? I met an incredible man, one of the heroes of my book Lost Connections called Sam Everington. Sam is a doctor in East London, one of the poorest parts of East London actually where I lived for many years. 

And Sam was really uncomfortable because he had loads of patients coming to him who were depressed and anxious. And he had been told in his training even though he knew the science was much more sophisticated than this to tell people, “Well you feel this way because you’ve got a chemical imbalance in your brain,” and just give them drugs. 

Like me, Sam is not opposed to those drugs. He’s in favor of them but he just thought this is not enough. This isn’t solving the reason why these people are depressed and anxious. 

He could see how lonely and cut-off they were. So he pioneered a different approach. And I’ll tell you about it through one of the patients of his that I got to know. 

A woman called Lisa Cunningham came to Sam, and Lisa has been shut away in her home for seven years with crippling anxiety and depression. 

She came to Sam and Sam said to her, “Don’t worry Lisa, I’ll give you the drugs, whatever you need. I’m also going to prescribe something different. I’m going to prescribe for you to take part in a group. There was an area behind the doctor’s surgery that was known as “dog crap alley”, right. Because you can sense what it was like, they didn’t really use the word “crap,” I’m being polite. Just an area of scrubland. 

And what Sam said is what I’d like you to do is twice a week I’d like you to meet with a group of other depressed and anxious people. We’ll turn out and support you. And I’d like you to just turn this into something beautiful. 

The first meeting Lisa was literally physically sick with anxiety. Many of the other people there were shaking. And they started talking to each other. They didn’t know anything about gardening. They were inner city people from East London. As the weeks and months and then years went by, they taught themselves gardening. They had something to talk about that wasn’t how terrible they felt. They could reconnect with the natural world.

There’s incredible evidence that interacting with the natural world is one of the most powerful natural antidepressants we have. 

And, as human beings do when we’re in groups, they started to solve each other’s problems. There was a guy in the group who was sleeping on the night bus. Lisa thought, “Well, of course, you’re depressed, you’re sleeping on a bus!” 

She was outraged. Her and some other people in the group started pressuring the local authorities to get him housing. They succeeded. It was the first thing they’d done for someone else in years. It made them feel better than doing anything for themselves. And the way Lisa put it to me: As the flowers began to bloom, they began to bloom. 

There was a study in Norway which is part of a great body of research of a very similar program that found it was more than twice as effective as chemical antidepressants. I think for obvious reasons. It’s dealing with the reasons why they were so depressed and anxious in the first place. Everywhere I went in the world I found the most effective strategies for depression and anxiety were the places that were dealing with these deeper causes.

Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. In the space of just one generation, we've closed ourselves off and now spend more time in front of screens — on average, 10 hours a day according to a Neilsen report — than we do with our loved ones. Author and journalist and author Johann Hari explains that this isn't at all how the human species is supposed to behave. He suggests more actual face time with people, more community, and above all: becoming the social creatures that we have been for millennia. Johann's new book is the fascinating Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.

Impossible Burger hits grocery stores on Friday

Can Impossible Foods beat other brands — like Beyond Meat and Tyson — in the war to dominate the alternative meat industry?

Impossible Foods
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Impossible Burger will be available in 27 Gelson's Markets stores in Southern California starting Sept. 20.
  • Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods sell plant-based burgers in restaurants, but only Beyond Meat sells products in grocery stores.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Amazon pledges surprisingly bold climate change goals

The move comes one day before more than 1,500 Amazon employees are set to walk off the job as part of the global climate strikes.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday plans to swiftly combat climate change.
  • Some parts of the plan include becoming carbon neutral by 2040, buying 100,000 electric delivery vans and reaching zero emissions by 2030.
  • Some Amazon employees say the pledge is good but doesn't go far enough.
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