Belinda Needham, Ph.D., had been to Washington D.C. before for family vacations, and she did all of the normal things tourist do — visit museums, memorials and landmarks.

Belinda Needham was invited by the Society for Women’s Health Research to brief Congress this past December on the topics of women, depression and obesity.
She didn’t get to go inside the walls of Congress to see how it operated, however, until this past December. Needham, assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Sociology and Social Work, was invited by the Society for Women’s Health Research to brief Congress on the topics of women, depression and obesity.

Needham’s study findings, published in the June 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, confirmed the relationship between depression and abdominal obesity, which has been linked to increased risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease. She was one of four researchers asked to brief congressional aides and their staffs on this issue.

In Needham’s sample of young adults during a 15-year period, those who initially reported high levels of depression gained weight at a faster rate than others in the study; however, those who already were overweight did not experience changes in depression.

The finding is important, Needham says, because it means treating depression can help prevent obesity and the risk of obesity-related diseases.

“It’s another reason to take depression seriously and also to think about the physical consequences of mental health problems,” Needham says.

Women’s Health Research believes women are at a greater risk for obesity, too. Needham’s findings were true for men and women. However, more than twice as many women experience depression as men, according to numerous sources. Because of that, the Society for

“On an individual level it doesn’t really matter. Women and men who experience the same levels of depression will experience the same increases in obesity over time. But because depression is twice is likely to effect women, then it becomes more of a women’s health issue,” Needham says.

Adolescent well-being
Most of Needham’s previous research has focused on adolescent depression and the consequences for young adult health and well-being.

Needham now is trying to replicate her most recent study in a sample of adolescents and young adults. She hopes to look at the same relationship of depression and obesity and its affects on the the transition to adulthood. “It’s not clear if this same pattern will hold up for people in different age groups,” she says.

One of the reasons Needham became interested in studying adolescents and depression is because so many people believe depression symptoms are normal among teenagers.

Needham wants to see if there are any lasting consequences for the health and well-being of adolescents even if they recover from that depression phase or period.

“Obesity could be one of them, but I haven’t looked at that yet,” Needham says. “But we do know adolescents who experience high levels of depression are less likely to go on to college. They’re more likely to have trouble in interpersonal relationships, use alcohol, drugs and tobacco. There are lots of things adolescent depression puts you at risk for later in life.”

Needham also is working on two different studies that investigate the way social status and cellular aging merge together. The studies cover children ages 7 to 12 and adults ages 18 to elderly.

“It’s all just trying to understand how social status — race, gender, socio-economic status — ultimately influences morbidity and mortality and the pathways by which social status gets under the skin to affect health,” Needham says. “There are many ways to think about it. The main theoretical perspective we take is that it’s related to social stress. But how do you measure or observe that in the body? I tend to think of obesity as one way you can observe the effects of stress.”

That makes stress research interesting to Needham. Everybody experiences stress, but are certain types of stress more problematic for your health than others? And if stress does negatively affect your health, how does it do it?

“That’s what we’re really interested in trying to understand,” she says. “There are probably behavioral and physiological pathways and psychological aspects to it. That’s one of the things that most interests me about depression —  if you’re going to understand how stress enters the body, it really has to do it through the brain. Depression is one way of getting at the experience of people’s stress exposure and vulnerability.”