DURHAM, N.C. — Mental illness can affect people of any age. When these issues arise in younger patients however, a new study finds it can lead to an early death. Researchers from Duke University say mental illness can reduce a person’s life expectancy by up to 20 years.
While part of this shorter lifespan is due to unnatural events like suicide, the study finds the majority of these deaths trace their causes to physical diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
“The same people who experience psychiatric conditions when they are young go on to experience excess age-related physical diseases and neurodegenerative diseases when they are older adults,” explains senior author Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, in a university release.
Mental illness literally makes the body older
Researchers examined people who had at least one of 14 mental disorders, including ADHD, substance dependence, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD, PTSD, and schizophrenia.
Study authors find lifelong mental struggles not only age a person biologically, but also how they look physically. Biomarker testing discovered the signs of aging, such as declines in sensory, motor, and cognitive function, as well as facial age. Over 1,000 residents from New Zealand took part in the study, which also found the signs of aging were all significant around the age of 45.
Participants in the study who experienced more difficulties with mental illness showed a faster pace of biological aging and experienced more difficulties with hearing, vision, balance, and motor functioning. To capture signs of aging, researchers evaluated data going back to the 1970s and uncovered progressive declines across many organs in the body.
“A major driver of these diseases is the process of aging itself,” lead author Dr. Jasmin Wertz and her team write in JAMA Psychiatry, a journal of the American Medical Association.
“Mental disorders tend to onset and peak in the first three decades of life, whereas physical diseases onset and peak decades later, suggesting that processes of biological aging in the interim connect them. Here, we present an initial test of the hypothesis that psychopathology is associated with faster aging, that is, with accelerated physiological decline toward age-related disease and mortality.”
Preventing rapid aging through better mental health
Researchers say their results remained constant even after accounting for factors such as obesity, smoking habits, and pre-existing health conditions. When it comes to keeping people alive longer, the team says mental health awareness needs to begin at an early age.
“You can identify the people at risk for physical illnesses much earlier in life,” says Wertz, a Duke postdoctoral researcher. “If you can improve their mental health in childhood and adolescence, it’s possible that you might intervene to improve their later physical health and aging.”
“Our healthcare system often divides treatment between the brain and the body, but integrating the two could benefit population health,” adds former Duke researcher Leah Richmond-Rakerd.
“Investing more resources in treating young people’s mental-health problems is a window of opportunity to prevent future physical diseases in older adults,” Moffitt concludes. “Young people with mental health problems go on to become very costly medical patients in later life.”
SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.