Rethinking Healthcare

How depression and anxiety can shorten your lifespan

How depression and anxiety can shorten your lifespan

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Mild mental illness makes you more likely to die prematurely, and less likely to seek treatment for health conditions.

Health researchers already knew, and common sense dictates, that people with severe mental illness suffer more commonly from premature deaths. But a report published yesterday in the British Medical Journal tells us something not previously confirmed in a large study: even people with very mild mental illness have shortened lifespans in relation to the rest of the population.

That's includes one in four of us, says BBC News.

People with so-called subclinical symptoms of depression and anxiety had a 20 percent increased risk of death compared to typical people. They also had a 39 percent increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, and a 29 percent increased risk of dying from external causes (non-cancer and non-heart disease related).

Here's how the researchers reached those conclusions:

  • They looked at about 76,000 Brits over the age of 35 from 1994 to 2004.
  • The authors measured the study participants' psychological distress annually using a general health survey, and assigned them a 0-12 score based on their responses (a score of 1-3 was considered mild depression or anxiety).
  • They also tracked participant death and cause of death.

Marjorie Wallace, the chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, said: "Even what may be considered mild depression can cut short a person's life, not only through the use of alcohol, cigarettes and other substances, but by directly affecting the recovery from physical illnesses such as heart disease. The debilitating effects on a person's life can lead them to neglect themselves and their management of long-term conditions such as diabetes or cancer."

With one in four people suffering from mild mental illness, and each of these people 20 percent more prone to death than the rest of the population, a significant portion of our society has an unnecessarily high risk of death. If people aren't ready to recognize anxiety and depression as serious medical issues, perhaps this knowledge of mental illness's impact on other health factors will help validate the need to seek treatment.

[via BBC News]

photo: coloredgrey/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure