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Mental illnesses in early life linked to faster aging and worse health in later years

People with mental disorders in youth tend to have signs of accelerated aging in midlife and a higher risk of developing other diseases and of dying earlier, according to a pair of related studies supported in part by NIA. The findings, which appeared Jan. 13 in JAMA Network Open and Feb. 17 in JAMA Psychiatry, suggest that improving individuals’ mental health could enhance their overall health and extend their lives. The respective studies were led by researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan.

A college student talks with a counselor about mental health issues.

Increasing evidence suggests that biological aging is best understood as a network of interacting genetic and environmental factors. As we age, our body’s repair mechanisms decline, contributing to multi-system impairment and diseases that are more common in late life, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and brain diseases, such as dementia. But less is known about how early life experiences influence disease onset many years later.

In the two new studies, the researchers followed up on the observation that people with poor mental health when they are young are more likely to have age-related diseases when they are older. To better characterize the nature of this connection, they analyzed health and mortality data from large numbers of individuals in New Zealand collected over the course of decades.

For the JAMA Network Open study, the researchers examined data from more than 2 million New Zealanders aged 10 to 60 years old across the subsequent 30 years, or until death. Their analysis showed that people who had been admitted to hospitals for mental health problems — including substance use, psychotic, mood, and behavioral disorders — tended to have other diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease at a younger age, and to die earlier — than those who did not have mental health problems early in life. People with a history of mental illnesses were also more likely to develop more chronic health conditions and to be hospitalized more often and for longer periods. These patterns were seen in both men and women, and across the lifespan.

In the study published in JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers explored the idea that accelerated biological aging might drive the early onset of other health conditions in people who had previously experienced mental health problems. They used data from the Dunedin Study, which monitored the health of about 1,000 people in New Zealand from age 3 to 45.

The results showed that at middle age, people with a history of mental health problems were aging at a faster pace, as measured by a panel of biomarkers and assessments of sensory, motor, and cognitive function. The connection was significant even after the researchers controlled for other factors that could potentially speed the aging process such as smoking, being overweight, low socioeconomic status, having a preexisting health condition, or a history of poor childhood health or maltreatment.

Together, the findings suggest that treating mental disorders in young people not only improves their well-being but may also forestall the onset of health problems later on. The results also offer the possibility that further research on how adverse psychological states hasten the aging process could lead to strategies to slow its progression, possibly enabling people to stay healthy for longer.

This research was supported in part by NIA grants R01AG032282, R01AG049789, P30AG028716, and P30AG034424.

References:

Richmond-Rakerd LS, et al. Longitudinal associations of mental disorders with physical diseases and mortality among 2.3 million New Zealand citizens. JAMA Network Open. 2021;4(1):e2033448. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.33448

Wertz, J., et al. Association of history of psychopathology with accelerated aging at midlife. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021 Feb 17;e204626. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.4626