OBJECTIVE: While there is robust evidence for a cross-sectional association between depression and shorter telomere length, suggestive of advanced biological aging, the nature of this association remains unclear. Here, we tested whether both traits share a common genetic liability with novel methods using genomics.
METHODS: Data were from 2032 participants of the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA) with genome-wide genetic information and multiple waves of data on DSM-IV lifetime depression diagnosis, depression severity, neuroticism and telomere length. Polygenic risk scores (PRS) for both traits were built using summary results from the largest genome-wide association studies (GWAS) on depression (59,851 cases and 113,154 controls) and telomere length (37,684 samples). Additionally, a PRS for neuroticism was built (337,000 samples). Genetic overlap between the traits was tested using PRS for same- and cross-trait associations. Furthermore, GWAS summary statistics were used to estimate the genome-wide genetic correlation between traits.
RESULTS: In NESDA data, the PRS for depression was associated with lifetime depression (odds ratio = 1.36; p = 6.49e-7) and depression severity level (β = 0.13; p = 1.24e-8), but not with telomere length. Similar results were found for the PRS for neuroticism. Conversely, the PRS for telomere length was associated with telomere length (β = 0.07; p = 8.42e-4) and 6-year telomere length attrition rate (β = 0.04; p = 2.15e-2), but not with depression variables. In summary-level analyses, the genetic correlation between the traits was small and not significant (rg=-0.08; p = .300).
CONCLUSION: The use of genetic methods in this paper indicated that the established phenotypic association between telomere length and depression is unlikely due to shared underlying genetic vulnerability. Our findings suggest that short telomeres in depressed patients may simply represent a generic marker of disease or may originate from non-genetic environmental factors.