Research Your Resolution: Focus on Your Mental Health, Especially As You Age


Jennifer Gatchel, MD, PhD

Jennifer Gatchel MD, PhD, is a geriatric psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital and an investigator in the Department of Psychiatry at Mass General. She works with adults ages 60 and over to help them cope with life’s transitions. Read more about her research.

Although dementia is on the rise, it is not an inevitable part of getting older.

While the number of individuals with dementia worldwide is on the rise as populations age, data are encouraging that a fraction of dementias may be preventable and that lifestyle interventions may have the potential to modify the course of changes in memory and thinking with aging¹.

Data in healthy older adults from the Harvard Aging Brain Study showed an association between subclinical depressive symptoms and tau—a marker of neurodegenerative change—in two brain regions vulnerable in aging and dementia².

While the direction and causality of this relationship is unknown, this and other data highlight the importance of maintaining awareness of changes in your mental health, seeking help and support for symptoms of depression and anxiety, and maintaining intellectual and social engagement¹ ².

¹Livingston G, Sommerlad A, Orgeta V, et al: Dementia prevention, intervention, and care. Lancet 2017; 390:2673-2734
²Gatchel JR, Donovan NJ, Locascio JJ, et al: Depressive Symptoms and Tau Accumulation in the Inferior Temporal Lobe and Entorhinal Cortex in Cognitively Normal Older Adults: A Pilot Study. J Alzheimers Dis 2017; 59:975-985

Research Your Resolution

Do you have goals for improving your health in the New Year? This month, investigators from the Mass General Research Institute are discussing the science behind some common New Year’s resolutions, and offering tips and advice based on their research into exercise, diet, healthy aging, heart health, and much more.

Massachusetts General Hospital is home to the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, a community of more than 10,000 people working across 30 departments, centers and institutes. The Mass General Research Institute works to support, guide and promote these research initiatives.

New Study Demonstrates the Benefits of Tai Chi in Chinese Americans Suffering From Depression

Summary: Tai chi has been found to be an effective and culturally acceptable treatment method for reducing symptoms of depression in Chinese Americans.

Tai chi.jpgMental illnesses such as depression are often associated with negative attitudes and beliefs. Previous research has found that these feelings of shame and discrimination are especially severe in the Chinese American community. Given the higher level of stigma, there’s a need to find culturally accepted treatment options for this traditionally under-treated population.

New research from Mass General has found that practicing the Chinese martial art tai chi significantly reduced symptoms of mild to moderate depression in Chinese Americans. “Finding that tai chi can be effective is particularly significant because it is culturally accepted by this group of patients who tend to avoid conventional psychiatric treatment,” explains Albert Yeung, MD, ScD, of the Depression Clinical and Research Program in the MGH Department of Psychiatry, lead and corresponding author of the pilot study recently published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing. Previous studies have suggested that tai chi may help treat anxiety and depression, but most of these studies used it as a supplement for treatment of other medical conditions.

Yeung and his team enrolled 50 Chinese-American adults with a diagnosis of mild to moderate major depressive disorder and randomized them into three groups. Members of the intervention group attended twice weekly tai chi sessions in which participants were taught and practiced basic traditional tai chi movements and were asked to practice at home three times a week. An active control group participated in educational sessions that included discussions on mental health and a passive control group participated only in repeated psychological assessments with no interventions in between.

The 12-week assessments showed that the tai chi group had significantly greater improvement in depression symptoms than did members of either control group. A follow-up assessment three months later showed sustained improvement among the tai chi group, with statistically significant differences remaining compared with the waitlist group.

“If these findings are confirmed in larger studies at other sites, that would indicate that tai chi could be a primary depression treatment for Chinese and Chinese American patients, who rarely take advantage of mental health services, and may also help address the shortage of mental health practitioners,” says Yeung.

Yeung also wants to investigate whether tai chi can have similar results for individuals from other racial and ethnic groups.

Identifying Risky Behaviors for Mental Health Month

May is Mental Health Month, a time to raise awareness about mental illness and related issues.

Suicide is the tenth highest cause of death in the United States, and the rate remained roughly steady across the population for the last century, before rising somewhat during the last few decades. Read how Mass General researcher Matthew Nock, PhD, is studying self-harm to understand how we can better identify suicide risk and prevent it.

suicide risk
Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Adhering to Treatment During Adolescence Keeps HIV-Positive Youth on Healthier Track

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As HIV therapies have improved in recent decades, we are now seeing the first generation of youth who were born with the disease, or acquired it shortly after birth, live to adulthood. As this population matures, researchers are looking to learn more about how these individuals have fared in managing their condition in order to improve long-term treatment and care.

A recent Massachusetts General Hospital study of 1,400 individuals between the ages of 7 and 30 born with HIV found that teens and young adults are more likely to have a difficult time managing their condition than they did as younger children. Those in the study group who had good HIV control generally experienced good overall health outcomes, while those who had poor HIV control – meaning higher levels of HIV virus and lower levels of CD4 immune cells had more physical and mental health conditions, a higher incidence of health complications, and a greater risk of death.

“Adolescents infected with HIV – either at birth or later in life – experience poorer health outcomes compared to adults with HIV in nearly every respect”, says Anne Neilan, MD, MPH, of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Medical Practice Evaluation Center, who led the study. “We need to act to strengthen these services for youth, taking into account their developmentally specific needs. That might include youth-friendly services that consider the substantial stigma many of these patients face, novel approaches to antiretroviral therapy delivery, and improving support for youth transitioning from pediatric to adult health care providers.”

Andrea Ciaranello, MD, MPH, of the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Infectious Diseases and the Medical Practice Evaluation Center, is senior author of the study. Anne Neilan, MD, MPH, of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Medical Practice Evaluation Center, led the study. Read more about this study here.

The Secret to a Healthier, Happier Life is Priceless, According to Harvard Study

We’ve all been told that certain habits, like eating a well-balanced diet or getting enough sleep, are beneficial for our long-term health. But how do our relationships with others impact our overall well-being? A nearly 80-year-old Harvard study has some good news for social butterflies.

“Our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, MD, director of the study, and a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study found that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or even genes.

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Waldinger. Several other studies have found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.

“Loneliness kills,” Waldinger said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism. Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”

You can read the full story in the Harvard Gazette.

Also check out Dr. Waldinger’s popular TED Talk.

Re-Thinking Mental Health Treatment: World Health Day 2017

Did you know that more than 300 million people worldwide live with depression? That number has increased 18% between 2005 and 2015, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). With such staggering numbers, it’s no surprise that WHO has chosen depression as its theme for this year’s World Health Day, which is celebrated today, April 7th. “These new figures are a wake-up call for all countries to re-think their approaches to mental health and to treat it with the urgency that it deserves,” says WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are working hard to find new treatment options for those who suffer from mental illness. We thought we’d share just a few examples of recent depression-related research being conducted at Mass General:

A team of researchers is looking into a more nuanced approach to deep brain stimulation treatment that could help patients with traumatic brain injuries, treatment-resistant depression and post traumatic stress. (Here’s another great article on their research from Pacific Standard magazine).

Researchers are looking into new ways to treat suicide risk. Their findings suggest that drugs such as ketamine (typically used as an anesthetic) may alleviate suicidal thoughts.

This NIH-funded study is using smartphones to measure a person’s mental state by analyzing his or her voice, call patterns, location and text messages.

Lastly, the Depression and Clinical Research Program at Mass General is currently conducting a number of studies and seeking participants. Their focus is on testing novel antidepressant treatments and on developing new tools to understand the biological changes that occur in this condition.