LONDON — People living with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder age faster than their peers, a new study reveals. Blood samples of people with mental illness show that their bodies are biologically older than their actual age. The findings could help explain why people with mental health problems tend to live shorter lives and have a higher risk for age-related diseases.
“It is now possible to predict people’s age from blood metabolites. We found that, on average, those who had a lifetime history of mental illness had a metabolite profile which implied they were older than their actual age,” says Julian Mutz, a researcher at King’s College London and lead study author, in a media release.
The research team gathered blood samples from over 110,780 people registered in a public United Kingdom database — the UK Biobank. There, they found individuals with a history of mental illness had unexpected blood markers based on their current ages.
Past research suggests that people with mental health problems often have a shorter lifespan and live in poorer health than the general population. The effect mental health problems seem to have on a person’s longevity depends on the type of condition. For example, people with bipolar disorder had blood markers suggesting they were two years older than their chronological age.
This isn’t the first time having poor mental health has displayed a link to a shorter lifespan. People with mental health issues show a higher risk for heart disease and diabetes, two conditions that worsen with age. In one 2019 study, scientists calculated the life expectancy for someone with a mental health disorder to be 10 years shorter in men and seven years shorter for women compared to the general population.
“This may not explain all the difference 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,” explains Dr. Mutz. “If we can use these markers to track biological aging, this may 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”.
The findings could help in understanding why some people with mental illness develop metabolic and age-related diseases more often in life.
“Understanding the mechanisms underlying accelerated biological aging could be crucial for the development of prevention and tailored treatments to address the growing difficulty of an integrated management of these disorders,” says Sara Poletti, a researcher at the Istituto Scientifico Universitario Ospedale San Raffaele in Milan who was not part of the study.
The research was recently presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris.