It is estimated that more than one in five American adults lives with a mental illness. These conditions range in severity, from mild to moderate to severe; but they are each debilitating in their own right. Whether you experience the occasional panic attack or struggle to get out of bed in the morning, mental illness is a difficult burden to shoulder. Now, a sobering new study suggests that mental health issues may actually have long-term effects on the aging process. According to research presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris last month, people who suffer from psychiatric conditions — especially depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety — carry markers in their blood that indicate they are older biologically than they are chronologically. It could therefore be said that mental illness may make you age faster.
According to Time, the study’s findings were presented by Julian Mutz, a post-doctoral research associate at King’s College London, and based on a survey Mutz and fellow researchers conducted of over 110,000 blood samples from the UK Biobank. (The UK Biobank is a large-scale biomedical database containing blood and genetic samples from over half a million United Kingdom residents.) The samples are cross-indexed with the donors’ age, gender, and medical history, so they provide a comprehensive look at the overall health of this UK population sample.
The biobank data was used to assess blood for 168 different metabolites (a.k.a. substances made or used when the body breaks down food, drugs, chemicals, or its own tissue), including cholesterol, fatty acids, inflammatory markers, and more. All of these metabolites can be used as indicators of a person’s biological age — which refers to the pace at which your body has aged for every year you’ve been alive, reflecting a combination of genetics, lifestyle factors, and additional determinants like diet and exercise habits.
“Some of those markers increase with age,” Mutz told Time of the biological age indicators, “some decrease, and some have a nonlinear relationship, so they would increase for a number of years [and then decrease].”
A few of the key metabolites studied in this case were creatine (an amino acid involved in muscular health, which tends to decrease with age); fatty acids (which also decrease with age); and the inflammatory markers known as c-reactive proteins (which can be indicators of declining heart health). The researchers first compared the blood analyses to the records of the patients’ age, then to questionnaires the patients had filled out between 2006 and 2010 about their mental health and any clinical diagnoses; the biobank’s data is also linked to primary care records and hospital inpatient records.
The results were clear: People with mental health problems seemed to “age faster,” or have biological ages that were greater than their chronological ages. Patients with bipolar disorder had a biological age that was two years greater than their calendar age. For patients with depression, it was one year older. And for anxiety conditions, it was 0.7 years older. “This helps explain why, at least on average, people with mental health disorders tend to have a higher prevalence of age-related diseases,” such as heart disease and diabetes, Mutz told Time. People who experience depression, anxiety, stress, or PTSD over a long period of time will often experience detrimental physiologic effects on the body that are linked to their mental condition.
According to research, people with mental disorders also die, on average, earlier than those without them. More specifically, a population study conducted by Aarhus University and published in The Lancet found that compared to the general population, the average life expectancy for men and women with mental disorders is 10 and 7 years shorter, respectively. This study was based on data collected from 7.4 million people living in Denmark.
Life expectancy rates do depend on how severe a person’s mental illness is. “The estimates differ a little bit depending on the diagnosis,” Mutz notes. “For example, people with schizophrenia or a psychosis have a greater difference in terms of life expectancy than people with depression or anxiety.” Unfortunately, people living with schizophrenia generally live a whopping 15 to 20 years less than those without the condition.
The Importance of Mental Health Treatment
These findings put a clear spotlight on the importance of mental health treatment. But it is estimated that less than half of Americans with a mental disorder get adequate treatment. Cost and accessibility are two big reasons people do not receive care or support; often, they either cannot afford it (the United States is the only industrialized country that does not have Universal Health Coverage for all citizens) or they cannot access it because of physician shortages.
Mutz told Time he hopes this study’s findings can help researchers gauge the effectiveness of mental-health interventions, using ongoing blood studies of people receiving psychiatric therapy to help determine how effective the treatment is.
“I could imagine a randomized control trial where we look at, say, exercise, which is very helpful for physical health and mental disorders,” concludes Mutz, “and see if it improves overall biological aging. Keeping track of these molecular aging clocks can be useful in providing care.”
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.