Even before the pandemic created a need for more telehealth options, depression was a hot area of research for app developers. Given the high prevalence of depression and its connection to suicidality — especially among today’s teenagers and young adults who grew up with mobile devices, use them often, and experience these conditions with alarming frequency — apps for depression could be not only useful but lifesaving.
“For people who are not depressed, but have been depressed in the past, the apps can be helpful for maintaining positive thinking and behaviors,” said Andrea K. Wittenborn, PhD, director of the Couple and Family Therapy Doctoral Program and a professor in human development and family studies at Michigan State University. “For people who are mildly to severely depressed, apps can be a useful complement to working with a mental health professional.”
Health and fitness apps, in general, number in the hundreds of thousands. These are driving a market expected to reach $102.45 billion by next year. The mobile mental health app market is a small part of this but still sizable at $500 million, with revenues generated through user health insurance, employers, and direct payments from individuals.
Apps can provide data that health professionals cannot gather on their own. People’s constant interaction with smartphones and wearable devices yields data on many health conditions for millions of patients in their natural environments and while they go about their usual activities. Compared with the in-office measurements of weight and blood pressure and the brevity of doctor-patient interactions, the thousands of data points gathered unobtrusively over an extended time period provide a far better and more detailed picture of the person and their health.
At their most advanced level, apps for mental health, including depression, passively gather data on how the user touches and interacts with the mobile device through changes in digital biomarkers that relate to depressive symptoms and other conditions.
Building on three decades of research since early “apps” were used for delivering treatment manuals to health professionals, today’s more than 20,000 mental health apps have a wide range of functionalities and business models. Many of these apps can be useful for depression.
Some apps primarily provide a virtual connection to a group of mental health professionals employed or contracted by the app. Others have options for meditation, sleeping or, in the case of industry leaders Calm and Headspace, overall well-being. On the cutting edge are apps that detect changes in a person’s use of mobile devices and their interactions with them.
Apps such as AbleTo, Happify Health, and Woebot Health focus on cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of counseling with proven potential to change a person’s behaviors and feelings. “CBT has been demonstrated in innumerable studies over the last several decades to be effective in the treatment of behavioral health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders,” said Dr. Reena Pande, chief medical officer at AbleTo. “CBT is intended to be delivered as a structured intervention incorporating key elements, including behavioral activation and adaptive thinking strategies.”
These CBT skills help break the negative self-talk (rumination) common in patients with depression. They are taught and reinforced by some self-guided apps, using either artificial intelligence or programmed interactions with users. Apps can address loneliness and isolation through connections with others, even when a symptomatic person doesn’t feel like leaving the house.
At their most advanced level, apps for mental health, including depression, passively gather data on how the user touches and interacts with the mobile device through changes in “digital biomarkers” that can be associated with onset or worsening of depressive symptoms and other cognitive conditions. In one study, Mindstrong Health gathered a year’s worth of data on how people use their smartphones, such as scrolling through articles, typing and clicking. Mindstrong, whose founders include former leaders of the National Institutes of Health, modeled the timing and order of these actions to make assessments that correlated closely with gold-standard tests of cognitive function.
National organizations of mental health professionals have been following the expanding number of available apps over the years with keen interest. App Advisor is an initiative of the American Psychiatric Association that helps psychiatrists and other mental health professionals navigate the issues raised by mobile health technology. App Advisor does not rate or recommend particular apps but rather provides guidance about why apps should be assessed and how health professionals can do this.
A website that does review mental health apps is One Mind Psyber Guide, an independent nonprofit that partners with several national organizations. One Mind users can select among numerous search terms for the condition and therapeutic approach of interest. Apps are rated on a five-point scale, with reviews written by professionals in the field.
Do mental health apps related to depression have the kind of safety and effectiveness data required for medications and other medical interventions? Not always — and not often. Yet the overall results have shown early promise, Wittenborn noted.
“Studies that have attempted to detect depression from smartphone and wearable sensors [during a single session] have ranged in accuracy from about 86 to 89 percent,” Wittenborn said. “Studies that tried to predict changes in depression over time have been less accurate, with accuracy ranging from 59 to 85 percent.”
The Food and Drug Administration encourages the development of apps and has approved a few of them—mostly ones used by health professionals—but it is generally “hands off,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. The FDA has published a list of examples of software (including programming of apps) that it does not plan to regulate because they pose low risk to the public. First on the list is software that helps patients with diagnosed psychiatric conditions, including depression, maintain their behavioral coping skills by providing a “Skill of the Day” technique or message.
On its App Advisor site, the American Psychiatric Association says mental health apps can be dangerous or cause harm in multiple ways, such as by providing false information, overstating the app’s therapeutic value, selling personal data without clearly notifying users, and collecting data that isn’t relevant to mental health.
Although there is currently reason for caution, patients may eventually come to expect mental health professionals to recommend apps, especially as their rating systems, features and capabilities expand. Through such apps, patients might experience more and higher quality interactions with their mental health professionals. “Apps will continue to be refined and become more effective through future research,” said Wittenborn. “They will become more integrated into practice over time.”
The sad eyes. The wagging tail. The frustrated whine. The excited bark. Dogs know how to get their owners to fork over the food more often.
The extra calories dogs get from feeding patterns now used by many Americans may not be good for them from a health and longevity viewpoint. In research from a large study called the Dog Aging Project, canines fed once a day had better scores on cognition tests and lower odds of developing diseases of organs throughout the body: intestinal tract, mouth and teeth, bones and joints, kidneys and bladder, and liver and pancreas.
Fewer than 1 in 10 dog owners fed their furry friends once daily, while nearly three fourths provided two daily meals.
“Most veterinarians have been led to believe that feeding dogs twice a day is optimal, but this is a relatively new idea that has developed over the past few decades with little supportive evidence from a health standpoint,” said Matt Kaeberlein, PhD, Co-Director of the Dog Aging Project, a professor of pathology and Director of the Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute at the University of Washington. Kaeberlein studies basic mechanisms of aging to find ways of extending the healthspan, the number of years of life lived free of disease. It’s not enough to extend the lifespan unless declines in biological function and risks of age-related diseases are also studied, he believes, hence the healthspan.
The Dog Aging Project is studying tens of thousands of dogs living with their owners in the real world, not a biology laboratory. The feeding study is the first of several reports now coming from the project based on owners’ annual reports of demographics, physical activity, environment, dog behavior, diet, medications and supplements, and health status. It has been posted on bioRxiv as it goes through peer review.
“All available evidence suggests that most biological mechanisms of aging in dogs will be conserved in humans. It just happens much faster in dogs.”
“The Dog Aging Project is one of the most exciting in the longevity space,” said David A. Sinclair, professor in the Department of Genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at Harvard Medical School. “Not only is it important to help our companions live longer and healthier, but because they are like people and share the same environment and many of the lifestyles as their owners, they are the perfect model for human longevity interventions.”
The epigenetic clock — and specifically changes in gene expression resulting from methylation of cytosine and guanine in the DNA — provides the critical connection between aging in dogs and people. “All available evidence suggests that most biological mechanisms of aging in dogs will be conserved in humans,” Kaeberlein said. “It just happens much faster in dogs.” These methylation changes, called the “methylomes,” have been associated with rates of aging in dogs, humans, and also mice.
In a 2020 study young dogs matched with young adults and aged dogs matched with older adults showed the greatest similarities in methylomes. In the Cell Systems report, Tina Wang of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues wrote that the methylome “can be used to quantitatively translate the age-related physiology experienced by one organism (i.e., a model species like dog) to the age at which physiology in a second organism is most similar (i.e., a second model or humans).” This allows rates of aging in one species to be mapped onto aging in another species, providing “a compelling tool in the quest to understand aging and identify interventions for maximizing healthy lifespan.”
In the Dog Aging Project study, 8% of 24,238 owners fed their dogs once daily, the same as the percentage of owners serving three daily meals. Twice-daily feedings were most common (73%), and just over 1 in 10 owners (11%) “free fed” their dogs by just filling up the bowl whenever it was empty — most likely Rover’s favorite option.
“The notion of breakfast, lunch, and dinner for people in the United States is not based on large studies that compared three meals a day to two meals a day, or to four, “ said Kate E. Creevy, chief veterinary officer with the Dog Aging Project and associate professor at Texas A&M University. “It’s more about what we are accustomed to. Similarly, there are not large population studies comparing outcomes of dogs fed once, twice, or three times a day.”
“We do not recommend that people change their dogs’ diets based on this report,” Creevy emphasized. “It’s important to understand the difference between research that finds associations versus research that finds cause and effect.”
To establish cause and effect, the Dog Aging Project will follow their cohort over many years. Then, Creevy said, “We will be able to determine whether the associations we have found with feeding frequency are causes, or effects, or neither.”
While not yet actionable, the feeding findings fit with biology across a variety of animals, Kaeberlein said, including indicators that better health translates into longer healthspans. He said that caloric restriction and perhaps time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting — all ways that some human diets are structured — can have a positive impact on the biology of aging by allowing the gastrointestinal tract to have time each day to rest and repair itself, just as sleep benefits the brain through rest.
Timing of meals is also related to the concept of ketogenesis, Kaeberlein explained. Without access to glucose, animals switch over to a ketogenic state in which back-up systems produce energy through metabolic pathways that generate ketones. Mice go into this state very quickly, after a few hours or an overnight fast, while people shift to ketogenesis more slowly, from a few hours to up to 36 hours for people on typical Western diets, Kaeberlein said.
Dogs are different. They take at least two days to shift to ketogenesis, suggesting they have evolved to need fewer meals that are spaced out rather than the multiple daily meals plus snacks that people prefer.
As this relates to longevity, Kaeberlein said that a couple of studies show that mice who are fed a ketogenic diet have longer lifespans (years of life regardless of health). “For us, the next step is to analyze the composition of the dogs’ diets or the relationship of multiple daily feedings with obesity,” he said. “Maybe not being obese is related to better health.”
To learn more, the Dog Aging Project needs dogs — lots of dogs! Kaeberlein wants at least 100,000 dogs, including small dogs, large dogs, dogs of all ages. Puppies are needed for the researchers to follow across their lifespan. The project has an excellent website where owners can volunteer to participate.
Nutritional strategies are often not built around sound scientific principles, Kaeberlein said. In human nutrition, people have tried all kinds of diets over the years, including some that were completely wrong. Kaeberlein and his colleagues in the Dog Aging Project want to change that, at least for people’s canine companions, and hopefully, as a result, give dogs added years of healthy life and provide clues for human nutrition.
After that, maybe they can do something about those sad eyes and the frustrated whine.