Mental Health Issues Can Decrease Longevity

Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia can shrink lives of people by 25 years

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Mental illness not only diminishes quality of life, but it can shorten lifespan.

People with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, for example, have “a substantially reduced life expectancy compared with the general population,” according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health.

“One study showed people can die up to 25 years earlier with serious mental illness,” said Sarah Rosner, psychiatrist with St. Joseph’s Health. “They also have a lower quality of life.”

Further studies link depression and anxiety to shorter lifespan and not only because of raised risk of death by suicide. Mental health’s effect on longevity stems from multiple issues.

“It’s complex,” Rosner said. “Studies have only begun looking at the link between mental health and longevity. It’s in part due to health-related behavior leading to chronic conditions like obesity and alcohol and drug use. Mental itself may cause biologic changes in the body that increase risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease.

“They’re feeding into one another. Having anxiety and depression can feed into chronic conditions and chronic conditions can feed into anxiety and depression.”

Although risk of suicide increases with depression and is a very important issue, that risk is statistically minimal compared with other risk factors for decreasing longevity.

“Some of the more recent evidence about the biology of depression and anxiety speak to less of an old-fashioned thing about chemical imbalance,” said physician Chris Lucas, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Upstate Psychiatry.”

He said that some of the reason mental health disorders may lower longevity is that the medication used to mitigate them can cause an inflammatory reaction.

“Those inflammatory processes affect physical health as well,” Lucas said. “It can be bidirectional, where a physical health problem leads to inflammation and vice versa.

There are increased rates of hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

Increased risk of substance use and alcohol abuse among people with untreated mental health issues can contribute to reduced lifespan. Some self-treat mental health with substances or alcohol instead of or in addition to seeking mental healthcare.

Lucas said that people not receiving needed mental healthcare are less likely perform vital self-care such as eating a balanced diet, engaging in physical activity regularly and monitoring chronic physical health issues.

Many of these outcomes stem from lack of self-care and preventive medicine.

Untreated depression and other mental illnesses can leave people feeling unmotivated to take basic steps to improve their health or misguided on how to improve their health.

“There could be comorbidities,” Lucas said. “They may be more prone to use substances and engage in other unhealthy behaviors which would impact their longevity.”

Lucas encourages people to work on mitigating stress, improving quality and quantity of sleep and physical activity.

“The earlier, the more aggressively you treat mental health issues, the better outcomes you get,” Lucas said. “It will optimize the functioning and minimize symptoms. They need to understand the lifestyle things that may be associated with anxiety and depression.

“There’s reasonable evidence that improving someone’s movement will have a strong effect on wellbeing, as well as a supportive person to support and cajole someone to do good things that they don’t want to do.”