If you’ve struggled with mental health issues, you know that getting through the day can feel like a lifetime. Now, scientists have found that there may be some truth to that: adults who experience long-term depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder may have an older biological age.
Researchers looked at data on 168 different blood metabolites (products of metabolism) from 110,780 participants in the UK Biobank study, which collected anonymous biological and medical data from over half a million UK citizens. They found that those with mental illness had a “metabolite profile” that indicated they were older than they actually were.
According to Julian Mutz, Ph.D, one of the researchers who presented these findings at the European Congress of Psychiatry, people with mental health conditions had blood markers that placed them around two years older than their actual age.
The World Health Organization has previously warned that people with severe mental health issues could die two-decades earlier than their peers due to “preventable physical conditions.”
The new findings “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,” Mutz wrote in a release ahead of his presentation. “If we can use these markers to track biological aging, this may change how we monitor the physical health of people with mental illness.”
How to Slow Biological Aging
Physical inactivity, chronic inflammation, social isolation, and smoking can all speed up biological aging in people with mental illness. Taking the below steps can help counter biological aging and help support better mental health.
People with more pronounced mental health symptoms should also seek out additional help. “Treating their mental health symptoms—whether through psychological, pharmacological or other treatments—should always be considered alongside with their physician,” Mutz told Fortune.
Increase Your Physical Activity
Being sedentary zaps your mental and physical health. Moving your body helps produce serotonin, the “feel good” brain chemical that influences mood and happiness. A new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine even recommends exercise as a treatment for severe depression (1).
A 2019 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that light aerobic exercises like jogging, going for a walk, or gardening can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms (2). Another study found that adults who engage in moderate to vigorous aerobic exercises also boast a 15% lower mortality rate (3).
Even completing a couple of household chores is enough to boost your activity levels and benefit your overall mental well-being, according to Paul Reed, M.D., the director of the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
While you may be tempted to pick up the lighter when you’re feeling anxious, smoking can make you feel way worse in the long run. In fact, the CDC points to a positive correlation between quitting smoking and improving mental health.
The temporary relief you get from a hit of nicotine is caused by a temporary spike in dopamine (4). But research shows that adults who smoke are more prone to mental health issues like anxiety and depression in the long run (5).
If you are dealing with mental health issues and want to quit smoking, consult with a physician to come up with a plan for detoxing safely— especially if you’re currently taking antidepressants or antipsychotics, as smoking can lower the amount of medication present in your blood (6). You could need a dose adjustment when you quit.
Phone A Friend
It can be tricky to muster the motivation to reach out to a friend when you’re already struggling with loneliness, depression, or social anxiety. But research shows that maintaining strong social relationships can contribute to positive mental health outcomes and healthy aging.
A study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that people with low quality social relationships were at an increased risk for depression (7).
And social isolation can greatly increase your risk of developing illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure as you age, according to the American Heart Association. Research shows that loneliness may even alter the function of cells in your immune system, which can cause inflammation (8).
- Heissel, et al (2023). Exercise as medicine for depressive symptoms? A systematic review and meta-analysis with meta-regression.
- Kandola, et al (2019). The association between cardiorespiratory fitness and the incidence of common mental health disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Coleman, et al (2022). Dose–response association of aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activity with mortality: a national cohort study of 416 420 US adults.
- Ashok, et al (2019). Tobacco smoking and dopaminergic function in humans: a meta-analysis of molecular imaging studies.
- Marsden, et al (2019). Associations between frequency of cigarette and alternative tobacco product use and depressive symptoms: A longitudinal study of young adults.
- Ryan, et al (2019). Tobacco smoking and its potential drug interactions.
- Kuczynski, et al (2021). The effect of social interaction quantity and quality on depressed mood and loneliness: A daily diary study.
- Bogart, et al (2021). The Association Between Loneliness and Inflammation: Findings From an Older Adult Sample.