The concept of the new age “mind-body connection” has moved into the mainstream fairly quickly, thanks to ever-growing research showing that a person’s mental well-being has actual and measurable effects on their physical health.
This research ranges from revealing stress as a risk factor for heart disease to discovering the significant impact mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder (MDD), anxiety disorders or bipolar disorder have on the body. For example, it is now widely accepted that MDD not only increases a person’s risk of heart disease, but also increases the severity and likelihood of dying from heart disease, as shown in research published in November 2016 in Nature reviews cardiology.
New research supports evidence of a mind-body link. This new study, presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris in March, shows that people with a long history of mental health conditions have physical signs that their bodies look older than their actual digital age.
New research: People with mental health conditions have older biological bodies
There are different ways to assess age. We are familiar with the discussion of chronological age (the number of years a person lives). When we talk about risk factors for a number of diseases, we often refer to chronological age. For example, recommendations for various cancer screenings, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, are based on age as a number.
However, there is another way to discuss age: biological age, also referred to as functional age.
The idea behind biological age is that there are many factors that contribute to your body changing over time besides the number of years you live, including genetics, lifestyle habits, and whether you have any health conditions. There are various ways to measure biological age, such as measuring changes in your DNA or measuring certain substances in your blood — “markers” — that change as you age, according to the research.
In the new study mentioned above, researchers assessed biological age by analyzing data on 168 blood markers from nearly 111,000 people in the UK Biobank (a large research database containing health information from participants living in the UK). Next, they compared the information between individuals with and without mental health conditions, such as mood disorders and anxiety disorders.
The researchers found that individuals with a history of mental disorders had a blood profile similar to that of people much older than themselves. In other words, their biological age appears to be older on average than their chronological age, explained lead researcher Julian Motz, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in the Center for Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry at King’s College London in England. , in a press release.
“For example, people with bipolar disorder had hematological markers indicating that they were about two years older than their chronological age,” Dr. Motz said during his presentation at the European Psychiatry Congress.
Previous research shows that people with mental health conditions often have shorter lives
For researchers studying this, the news may not come as a surprise. Although most of the previous studies have been small and had mixed results, there is already some research suggesting that mental illness is linked to accelerated aging.
For example, a study of 811 people diagnosed with MDD found that DNA changes were consistent with older biological age when compared to people without major depressive disorder. The results were published in April 2018 American Journal of Psychiatry.
Research has yielded similar results for bipolar disorder, as has other research for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In addition to these physical signs of advanced biological age, a large evidence base also shows various clinical signs of accelerated aging. In fact, the age gap between those with chronic mental disorders and those without them has already been estimated by more than two years (estimation given in the study presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry).
An observational study completed in the United Kingdom found an average of 14.5 years lost in men and 13.2 years lost in women with either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This study was published in May 2020 in Psychiatryshowed similar decreases in lifespan among those diagnosed with MDD.
What drives this accelerated aging and early death?
Risky behaviors, including drug use and self-harm behaviours, may account for part of these premature deaths. But a comprehensive report published in 2019 in the Lancet Psychiatry It has been estimated that the majority of premature deaths are in fact due to natural causes, such as an increased risk of age-related physical diseases.
For example, people diagnosed across a range of mental health disorders have a 1.4 to 2 times increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, according to the report. When the authors looked at MDD alone, they found the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or obesity was 40 percent higher than the general population.
It is important to note that many factors may contribute to accelerated aging in people with mental disorders. Of course one theory is that disease itself contributes to biological aging. This is most evident in the case of MDD. As indicated in one review published in January 2019 in cellsMDD-induced inflammation could explain at least some of the increase in age-related diseases and acceleration of biological age.
However, it is also known that people with mental health conditions are more likely to experience early childhood trauma, engage in lifestyle habits that are detrimental to health (such as sedentary lifestyles, use more substances, and eat a poorer quality diet), and experience greater depression. more total daily stress — all of which can also affect biological age — than people without these conditions, according to the aforementioned review published in Lancet Psychiatry.
Simply put, we don’t yet know whether accelerated aging is a result of the mental disorders themselves or whether they are a secondary result of a symptom or experience that often comes with having one of these disorders. More research is needed to further explore this relationship.
What does all this mean for people with mental health conditions?
The main conclusion of all this research is that the impact of mental disorders is not limited to the mind or the brain, but rather includes the whole body of a person. As such, treatment of mental health conditions should include concern for physical health as well.
Some of the things a person can do to promote good physical health and well-being and healthy aging — which may be especially important for people with mental health conditions — include:
1. Practice healthy behaviors — and make them habits
You cannot change your chronological age or genetic susceptibility to developing a physical disease, but you are Can Control your lifestyle habits and behaviors. Lifestyle choices, which ultimately affect your biological age and likelihood of developing physical disease, include:
- Avoid smoking and limit alcohol intake
- Eating a diet high in minimally processed plant foods (such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and low in processed foods (such as chips, hot dogs, and deli meats)
- Moving your body, ideally, 150 minutes of vigorous activity or 300 minutes of moderate activity, according to the World Health Organization.
These behaviors can be changed difficult, Sometimes support is necessary. This support can come from a doctor, therapist, friend, or family member. And support can come in many forms — sometimes just having someone to make a change with you and help keep you accountable can be helpful. Other times, such as in the case of smoking cessation, support may be in the form of medications or nicotine replacement therapy.
The important thing to know is that you should never feel alone or overwhelmed when you decide to make a change. Seek help, and if you’re not sure who to reach, a primary care physician or mental health provider is a good start.
2. Find a supportive, non-judgmental healthcare team
Ideally, the people who help you take care of your health — who may include your primary care physician, psychiatrist, gynecologist, nurses, or clinical social worker — will help you prevent illness as well as manage illness.
But stigma—the negative attitudes or beliefs society holds about certain things like mental illness—may lead to worse medical care, preventatives, and more. According to a previous survey of more than 77,000 people in the United States, people with mental disorders were more likely to be denied insurance coverage due to a pre-existing condition and to delay seeking medical care due to cost or inability to access it. the care they need, compared to those without mental disorders.
Another previous study showed that even those who do receive care may receive substandard care, and are less likely to receive necessary prescriptions and undergo diagnostic tests. Not surprisingly, this care gap also plays a role in the age gap between those with and without mental illness.
If you feel like you’re being rushed, treated differently because you’ve been diagnosed with a mental disorder, or like you’re not receiving comprehensive preventative care, tell a friend, family member, or your mental health provider. It may be helpful to attend your appointments with a friend or family member as an extra advocate. Your mental health provider may be able to coordinate your care with your other doctors, which helps ensure that you get the necessary treatment you need. If this does not help or if you feel it is necessary, consider changing medical providers.
Preventive care is essential for everyone, and most importantly for those with mental illnesses. As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Ultimately, medical providers and patients are partners in health, and you should feel like a respected member of that partnership.
3. Be your own advocate
Doctors do not expect their patients to be health experts. It’s completely normal not to know what diseases you may be at increased risk for, what a healthy diet looks like, or how much physical activity to strive for. If your health care providers do not give you this information, ask them questions about it. If you’re not sure what questions to ask them, here are some suggestions:
- Do my mental health conditions or medications put me at increased risk of any physical illness?
- How can I best prevent these physical ailments?
- How are my labs? Do I have high cholesterol, fat or blood sugar? Do I appear to be at risk of developing these if I don’t already?
- What are nutritious foods? What foods should I limit?
- How much physical activity should I do? Knowing my health history, are there any exercises I should avoid?
- Does this office or clinic offer any nutritionist or dietitian services that might be covered by my insurance?
- Does this office or clinic offer smoking cessation programs? Can I get a free nicotine replacement if I need it?