Findings published in the medical journals JAMA Psychiatry and JAMA Network Open suggest that people who experience mental health issues in their youth are at a higher risk of accelerated aging in middle age, as well as of developing diseases and dying earlier. Work on these issues was carried as part of two related studies conducted by researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan, which were partly supported by the National Institute on Aging.
Although medical professionals have an increasingly better understanding of the processes underlying biological aging, the ways in which early life experiences can affect the onset of disease in old age remain poorly understood. Taking the apparent connection between mental health issues among the young and age-related diseases in the elderly as their starting point, the two studies examined health and mortality data for large numbers of people living in New Zealand. The data had been collected over several decades.
The research published in JAMA Network Open shows that both men and women admitted to hospitals with a variety of mental health problems were more likely to suffer from physical diseases (such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease) earlier in life, and even tended to die earlier compared to those who did not have this experience. They were also subsequently admitted to hospital more often and had higher rates of chronic health conditions.
The JAMA Psychiatry study examined the link between mental health issues early in life, accelerated biological aging, and the early development of health problems. The researchers found evidence that people who had previously experienced mental health issues aged at an accelerated rate when in middle age, even when their analysis accounted for other influences such as smoking and being overweight.
The research appears to show that tackling mental health issues among young people may be of central importance in improving the population’s health and extending lifespans over the long-term. More generally, it underlines the importance of addressing mental health issues as part of any strategy to improve wellbeing and extend life among older generations.