Anxiety and depression linked to accelerated ageing of the body

Profile of markers in blood revealed people with mental illness resembled a person older than the patient’s actual age - Alvaro Medina Jurado/Getty Images
Profile of markers in blood revealed people with mental illness resembled a person older than the patient’s actual age - Alvaro Medina Jurado/Getty Images

People with mental illness have the body of a person up to two years older than they actually are, a study has revealed.

People with anxiety, bipolar and depression have long been known to also suffer from worse physical health and now scientists may have found evidence to suggest this is because mental health is linked to accelerated ageing.

Dr Julian Mutz, a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London, led a project which analysed data on 168 different blood metabolites (products of metabolism) from 110,780 participants in the UK Biobank study.

The profile of markers in the blood revealed people with mental health conditions resembled a person older than the patient’s actual age, the data show.

“We examined biological ageing in people with bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety disorder,” Dr Mutz told the Telegraph.

“We found that across these diagnoses, people with a history of mental illness had an older biological age than their actual age.

More age-related diseases

“The differences were largest for people with bipolar disorder, smallest for people with anxiety disorder and depression was somewhere in between.

“We observed the largest difference between biological age and actual age in people with bipolar disorder, a mean difference of about two years.

“For depression the corresponding difference was about one year and for anxiety disorder was 0.7 years.

“The finding that these differences were greatest in people with bipolar disorder is something that we also observed for other measures of biological ageing, for example when looking at frailty.”

According to the researchers, their findings may go some way to explaining why people with mental health problems tend to have shorter lifespans and more age-related diseases than the general population.

“It is now possible to predict people’s age from blood metabolites,” Dr Mutz said.

“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.”

‘Mutually reinforcing process’

The study was presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris and Dr Mutz told the Telegraph that while the data did not prove causation, it opened up avenues for future research.

“There are several plausible pathways linking psychiatric disorders to accelerated biological ageing,” he said.

“For example, lifestyle (e.g., physical inactivity, higher rates of smoking), biology (e.g., overactivation of the autonomic nervous system, chronic low-grade inflammation) and psychosocial factors (social isolation, loneliness) in people with mental illness likely negatively impact biological ageing and their health, highlighted by the higher prevalence of age-related diseases and lower life expectancy compared to the general population.

“I would speculate that it is a mutually reinforcing process, i.e. mental illness negatively impacts ageing, and faster biological ageing and poor health in turn negatively impacts mental health.

“However, we need more data to repeatedly measure biological age over time.”

He added that the study has not yet been published in a journal but the team is hoping to submit the work for publication in the next few months.