The Invisible Impact of Mental Illness: Accelerating Biological Age

Mental illness stress aging

New research has found that people with a history of mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders have blood metabolites that indicate they are biologically older than their actual age. The finding could partly explain why these individuals have shorter lifespans and higher rates of age-related illness, potentially transforming the way physical health is monitored and interventions for people with mental illness are evaluated.

New research indicates that individuals with prior mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety disorders have certain blood markers that suggest they are biologically older than their chronological age. This could help clarify why people suffering from mental health problems often experience shorter life spans and a higher incidence of age-related illnesses than the general population.

Dr Julian Mutz and Professor Cathryn Lewis, researchers at Kings College London, conducted a review of data on 168 distinct blood metabolites collected from 110,780 UK biobank participants. This information was compared with data regarding the participants’ past history of mental illness. The results revealed that the metabolite profiles of those with a history of mental health conditions were indicative of a greater biological age than their actual chronological age.

Presenting the work at the European Psychiatry Congress in Paris, lead researcher Dr Julian Mutz (Kings College London) said:

It is now possible to predict people’s age from blood metabolites. We found that, on average, those with a lifetime history of mental illness had a metabolic profile that implied they were older than their actual age. For example, people with bipolar disorder had blood markers that indicated they were about 2 years older than their chronological age.

People with mental disorders tend to have shorter lives and lower quality health than the general population. Effect estimates vary depending on the mental health condition. Often people with mental health problems show a greater tendency to develop conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and these conditions tend to get worse with age. A 2019 study found that on average, people with mental disorders had a shorter life expectancy (compared to the general population) by about 10 years for men and seven years for women.

Dr. Mutz continued:

Our findings indicate that the bodies of people with mental health problems tend to be older than would be expected of an individual their age. This may not explain all the differences in health and life expectancy between those with mental health problems and the general population, but it does mean that accelerated biological aging may be an important factor. If we can use these markers to track biological aging, it could change how we monitor the physical health of people with mental illness and how we evaluate the effectiveness of interventions aimed at improving physical health.

Commenting, Dr. Sara Poletti (University Scientific Institute San Raffaele Hospital, Milan) declared:

This is important work as it provides a possible explanation for the higher prevalence of age-related and metabolic diseases in patients with mental illness. Understanding the mechanisms underlying accelerated biological aging could be crucial for the development of prevention and treatments tailored to address the growing difficulty of integrated management of these disorders.

Conference: 31st European Congress of Psychiatry

Dr. Poletti was not involved in this work, this is an independent comment.

This research is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Center in South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Kings College London. There are no relevant conflicts of interest.

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