How do cities affect mental health? New genetic study reveals complex link


New search suggests that there is a link between the genetic risk of psychiatric disorders and the likelihood of living in cities.

Previous studies support the stress of living in a city, along with exposure to things like pollution, is a risk factor for mental health problems like schizophrenia. Cities are generally associated with higher rates of mental health problems – the Why, however, is up for debate.

In a study published in October in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers are finding that a person’s genetic risk for mental health problems can influence where a person chooses to live. This is not to say that the environment does not play a role in the development of mental health problems. Instead, the study team is calling for more integrated approaches when it comes to exploring and treating the causes of these conditions – therapeutic steps that take into account all of the factors that result in a diagnosis. .

Above all, carrying this genetic risk does not mean that a person To a mental health problem – and the majority of people in the sample of 385,793 people did not have a diagnosis. Overall, when the research team compared people who moved from rural to urban areas to those who stayed in rural areas, they found higher genetic risks of autism, anorexia. , bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. During this time, they found a lower genetic risk for ADHD.

Jonathan Coleman is co-author of this study and lecturer at King’s College London. He says Reverse this research does not negate the detrimental effects of city living on mental health, but rather “supports the idea that people with a greater genetic predisposition to poor mental health are also more likely to move to the city”.

“We would say our research shows that the influences on mental health are nuanced,” says Coleman. “Environmental and genetic factors can have important effects, and we need to take an integrated approach to understand these effects.”

The connection between genes and where you live

Coleman and his colleagues looked at genetic data from people aged 37 to 73 who participated in the UK Biobank project.

A commuter crosses London. The participants in this study were from the United Kingdom.Léon Neal / Getty Images

This study is based on a specific population. Because cities, and the reason people choose to live in cities, are different all over the world, “there is good reason to believe that the genetic and environmental influences of cities on mental health can vary between they”.

The team calculated the polygenetic risk score for each participant for various mental health issues. A polygenetic risk score is a measure of disease risk based on a person’s genes – it’s an estimate and most people have some level of genetic risk for mental health issues.

The scores were compared to data associated with:

  • Where study participants live
  • Where they moved
  • The population density of these places, based on UK census data

Overall, the study team writes, these “findings suggest that a high genetic risk for a variety of psychiatric disorders may affect an individual’s choice of residence.”

Mental health and why people move – “Where an individual lives is obviously a very complex issue, influenced by both things under their control and things outside of their control,” Coleman explains.

You can move to a city to further your education, to get closer to better health care, or because you’ve found a new job. And while many of these things have been shown to be linked to genetics, DNA is only part of the recipe. Genes can inform an executive about how one behaves, but the environment is arguably what determines the actual outcome.

Moving to cities, Coleman points out, can also carry a certain degree of risk, as genetic influences on risk-taking could influence that decision. “Overall, there are many factors that contribute to moving to a city,” he says, “and many of them can be influenced in part by genetic variation.”

Apparently the situation, alongside studies that found city dwellers more likely to develop mental health issues, is other studies that suggest that cities can actually benefit mental health because cities offer the type of social interactions that contribute to mental health.

So what exactly is going on? Ultimately, research like that presented in the JAMA Psychiatry One study suggests there’s more to this link between genes and city life than we previously thought – and that’s something to probe if we’re serious about improving our mental health support.

This understanding can be integrated with this broader understanding that physical and social factors also influence mental health.

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