New research conducted by a Duke University team in New Zealand highlights the connection between mental health challenges in early life and poorer physical health and advanced aging in adulthood. The researchers argue that investing in prompt mental health care could prevent later diseases and reduce societal healthcare costs.
The Association Between Youthful Psychopathology and Advanced Aging
The findings, published in JAMA Psychiatry, originate from the Dunedin Study, a comprehensive examination of the health and well-being of 1,000 individuals born in 1972 and 1973 in New Zealand. In middle age, participants who had experienced mental health issues during their youth exhibited accelerated aging, declines in sensory, motor, and cognitive functions, and were perceived as looking older than their peers. These effects persisted even after controlling for factors such as overweight, smoking, medications, and prior physical diseases. The mental health issues in their younger years primarily included anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and schizophrenia.
Identifying at-risk Individuals Early in Life for Improved Physical Health and Aging
Jasmin Wertz, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke who led the study, emphasized the importance of identifying individuals at risk of physical illnesses at a young age. By improving mental health during childhood and adolescence, interventions could potentially enhance later physical health and slow down the aging process.
The Link Between Early-Life Mental Health Diagnoses and Medical and Neurological Illnesses
Another study conducted by the same research team, published in JAMA Network Open, analyzed 30 years of hospital records for 2.3 million New Zealanders aged 10 to 60. The findings revealed a strong correlation between mental health diagnoses in early life and the development of medical and neurological illnesses later on. Individuals with mental disorders during their youth had a higher likelihood of developing subsequent physical diseases and experiencing premature mortality compared to those without mental disorders. They also had more hospitalizations for physical conditions, longer hospital stays, and higher healthcare costs over the following 30 years.
Integration of Mental and Physical Healthcare for Improved Population Health
The researchers suggest that integrating mental and physical healthcare could benefit population health. Often, treatment focuses separately on the brain and the body, but combining the two aspects could yield positive outcomes and preventive measures.
Investing in Young People’s Mental Health as a Preventive Measure for Future Physical Diseases
Mariana Moffitt, the senior author of both studies, stresses the significance of allocating more resources to address mental health issues in young individuals. Such investment presents an opportunity to prevent future physical diseases in older adults. Moffitt highlights that young people with mental health problems tend to become costly medical patients later in life.
Seizing the Opportunity to Prevent Health Problems in Younger Populations
In a commentary published in JAMA Psychiatry, Moffitt and research partner Avshalom Caspi underscored the opportunity for mental health providers to intervene early and mitigate future health problems and social costs. Their body of work demonstrates the predictability of mental disorders based on childhood risk factors such as poverty, maltreatment, low IQ, poor self-control, and family mental health issues. With aging populations becoming more predominant in developed countries, the time to invest in prevention is now.
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