Bodies of people with mental illness are biologically older than their actual age

New research shows that people with a lifetime history of mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety disorders have blood markers suggesting that they are older than their actual age.

This 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.

Dr Julian Mutz and Prof Cathryn Lewis, from King’s College London, looked at data on 168 different blood metabolites from 110,780 participants in the UK Biobank. They linked these data to information on whether individuals had a history of mental illness and found that those with a mental illness had a metabolite profile older than would have been expected for their age.

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

“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. For example, people with bipolar disorder had blood markers indicating that they were around 2 years older than their chronological age.”

People with mental health disorders tend to have shorter lives, and poorer quality health, than the general population. Estimates of the effect vary according to the mental health condition. Often people with poor mental health show an increased tendency to develop conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and these conditions tend to worsen with age. A 2019 study found that on average people with mental disorders had shorter life expectancy (in comparison to the general population) by around 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 for an individual their age. 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 ageing may be an important factor. If we can use these markers to track biological ageing, 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”.

Commenting, Dr Sara Poletti (Istituto Scientifico Universitario Ospedale San Raffaele, Milan) said:

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

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