People suffering from anxiety and depression may be at significantly higher risk for major health conditions like heart disease, according to new research, perhaps at levels comparable to smoking and obesity.
The study analyzed health data for more than 15,000 adults over a four-year period from the Health and Retirement study, a large US population-based study of older adults. Among that group, 16% suffered from high levels of anxiety and depression, 31% were obese, and 14% were smokers.
The researchers found that compared to those without anxiety and depression, participants suffering from those conditions were at 65% increased risk of a heart condition, 64% for stroke, and 50% for high blood pressure. Risk was especially high for arthritis at 87%.
“These increased odds are similar to those of participants who are smokers or are obese,” said senior study author Aoife O’Donovan, PhD, of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry. “However, for arthritis, high anxiety and depression seem to confer higher risks than smoking and obesity.”
The research team also found strong links between depression and anxiety with more common symptoms such as headache, back pain, upset stomach, and shortness of breath. Headache occurrence was 161% higher among depression and anxiety patients, compared with no increase among smokers and obese participants.
The study didn’t find a link between depression, anxiety and higher risk of cancer.
“Our findings are in line with a lot of other studies showing that psychological distress is not a strong predictor of many types of cancer,” O’Donovan said. “On top of highlighting that mental health matters for a whole host of medical illnesses, it is important that we promote these null findings. We need to stop attributing cancer diagnoses to histories of stress, depression and anxiety.”
The link between depression, anxiety and other chronic health conditions is increasingly evident in studies focused on the effects of inflammation. When the body’s natural response to injury, infection and stress is unchecked, the results can be far ranging and severe. While the latest study didn’t focus on underlying causes of health conditions, a wealth of prior research suggests that inflammation is the likely line connecting the dots.
The researchers emphasized the importance of health care professionals paying more attention to depression and anxiety as predictors of other major health conditions. The results of the study underscore the “long-term costs of untreated depression and anxiety,” added O’Donovan in a press statement.
“Anxiety and depression symptoms are strongly linked to poor physical health,” said the study’s first author Andrea Niles, PhD, “yet these conditions continue to receive limited attention in primary care settings, compared to smoking and obesity.”
As with all correlative research, the results from the latest study don’t prove an association, but they do point to significant potential risk factors.
The study was published in the journal Health Psychology.