Synaptic Sunday #10 – Mental Health and Life Expectancy

A mental health issue isn’t “all in your mind.” The mind arises from the brain, and the brain is a part of your body that closely interacts with the rest of your body.

1) Even Mild Mental Health Problems Linked to Reduced Life Expectancy

This was from a study of 68,000 adults ages 35 and over in the U.K.:

Their results reveal that people who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression had a lower life expectancy than those without any such symptoms.

Even people with minor symptoms of mental health problems seemed to have a higher risk of death from several major causes, including cardiovascular disease, according to the researchers.

And it’s not just a matter of poorer health behaviors. The researchers did try to control for factors like weight, eating habits, exercise, drinking, etc. and still found associations between these mental health symptoms and disease. (Granted they didn’t control for all possible factors, but they did try to account for some basic lifestyle choices that strongly impact health.)

Having poorer mental health doesn’t automatically doom you to a shorter life. No one can say what your individual outcome will be. What the study is showing is that on average people with poorer mental health have a shorter life expectancy compared to people with good mental health. As a preventative measure, to increase the odds in your favor that you’ll live longer and with a higher quality of life, don’t ignore your psychological distress or any other symptoms indicative of poor mental health. The effects ripple out to all areas of your life.


2) Psychological distress linked to life expectancy- experts respond

Here’s a post with some comments from a few researchers and doctors on the study in the first link; the post includes some comments on potential weaknesses in the study and what can be researched next (for instance, what are the best interventions?). There are multiple ways that psychological distress can be linked to poorer health and shorter lifespan. Chronic stress damages the body and increases the chances of physical illnesses. People with poorer mental health might be more isolated and have less of a social support network. Maybe when they’re physically healthy they can get by, but when they come down with a physical illness they may neglect to get it treated. This is a fruitful area of research.

18 thoughts on “Synaptic Sunday #10 – Mental Health and Life Expectancy

  1. Researchers have found that stress is a serious issue with brain function. Recently, results of a study showed that memory becomes limited after even a singular high stress moment. Other studies indicate that high stress over long periods of time starts to inhibit the brain’s ability to produce accurate long term memory and may make it nearly impossible for short term memory existence as well.

    Bottom line: Mental health is stressful. Instead of focusing on other factors, let’s get to the root, which is stress. It’s always stress. So, let’s all take baby steps to destress our lives.

    1. Probably a lot of it has to do with chronic high levels of psychological stress; and I agree that finding effective ways to destress is hugely important. However what works for people will differ on an individual basis, and having an understanding of different factors (environmental, neurological) can help with finding the most effective ways for each person to handle and minimize chronic stress. Studying the underlying mechanisms is also important because (for example) major depression might influence the brain in ways that differ from generalized anxiety disorder, even if both can cause a lot of stress. It’s worth knowing, to see how best a person can cope and recover.

      1. Oh absolutely. Researchers have seen that different MI’s have different effects on the brain. Worse, different maintenance medications also have lasting effects.

        I am a strong advocate for behavioral therapy, in any form. DBT is a great example and seems to be extraordinarily effective when used over a period of a year or more.

        Wow, I love chatting with you about this. It’s rare that I have the chance to throw around ideas about MI in general! Thanks for this great article!

      2. You’re welcome, and thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on this. I’ll read up on DBT; I don’t know much about it.

  2. As a health care provider I find these kind of articles very useful for the general public. As a human being I find that its just common sense most of the time. 🙂

      1. People may have certain intuitions about how the brain works (anything from how rational adult humans are when they make decisions, to what mental illness really is, to how we process sentences when we’re reading or listening to someone speak, to biases we have about the thinking processes of other people vs. our own), and some of those intuitions are based less on what the brain actually seems to be doing and more on what we wish it were doing or think it would be ‘commonsensical’ for it to do.

        Here’s one neat article of ten psychological findings that when they were initially published seemed to run ‘counterintuitive’ to how many people think their minds work:

      2. As much as I like science based stuff, I am always a little leery of it too. This funny saying pretty much sums it up for me.

        “There was a time when religion thought it could explain the world, then came science. They both come up short”

        My intuition tells me there are some things we will never be able to explain. 😉

      3. Leeriness is appropriate, given that science has limitations and that many studies are flawed (one example of something scientists struggle with are individual differences between people, and these tend to be glossed over in newspaper articles of findings). Like any human enterprise, science and its interpretations can be riddled with problems.

        Unfortunately one of the things you often see, especially on the internet, is people with poor critical thinking skills, no statistical training, and a heaping load of bias wave around a ‘scientific study’ that they claim supports their most cherished beliefs about the world. Usually they haven’t read past the headline or first paragraph of the article… assuming it would be of value to them if they had, given that journalists often make shoddy reports of research – there’s a funny comic about it here:

  3. Nice post. I appreciate your link to comments from other researchers. I think it’s especially important to note that this study only reveals a correlation, and we should not infer causation. In other words, we don’t know if the study participants’ mental symptoms arose before or after the physical health problems that led to their deaths. Such research should not be used to make concrete policy recommendations.

    1. Agreed, this is only the start, and it’s a correlation. I would like to get access to the original paper to see if they did measure for when the mental health symptoms began relative to other problems, because I don’t remember if they mentioned whether they did or did not (I’d better have another look) – and comparing various health outcomes in people with and without symptoms of anxiety/depression, but who have fairly similar physical illnesses. At this point it’s too early to give concrete policy recommendations, short of the usual suggestions for people to not neglect their mental health (which, regardless of the potential effect on lifespan, diminishes quality of life).

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