Genetic heterogeneity in depressive symptoms following the death of a spouse: Polygenic score analysis of the U.S. Health and retirement study

Benjamin W. Domingue*, Hexuan Liu, Aysu Okbay, Daniel W. Belsky

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

Objective: Experience of stressful life events is associated with risk of depression. Yet many exposed individuals do not become depressed. A controversial hypothesis is that genetic factors influence vulnerability to depression following stress. This hypothesis is often tested with a "diathesisstress" model, in which genes confer excess vulnerability. The authors tested an alternative formulation of thismodel: genes may buffer against depressogenic effects of life stress. Method: The hypothesized genetic buffer was measured using a polygenic score derived from a published genomewide association study of subjective well-being. The authors tested whether married older adults who had higher polygenic scores were less vulnerable to depressive symptoms following the death of their spouse compared with agematched peers who had also lost their spouse and who had lower polygenic scores. Data were analyzed from 8,588 non-Hispanic white adults in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a population-representative longitudinal study of older adults in the United States. Results: HRS adults with higher well-being polygenic scores experienced fewer depressive symptoms during follow-up. Those who survived the death of their spouses (N=1,647) experienced a sharp increase in depressive symptoms following the death and returned toward baseline over the following 2 years. Having a higher well-being polygenic score buffered against increased depressive symptoms following a spouse's death. Conclusions: The effects were small, and the clinical relevance is uncertain, although polygenic score analyses may provide clues to behavioral pathways that can serve as therapeutic targets. Future studies of gene-environment interplay in depression may benefit from focus on genetics discovered for putative protective factors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)963-970
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Volume174
Issue number10
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017

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