People with mild, subclinical levels of psychological distress are 29 percent more likely to have an early death due to health or injury-related reasons than are those without distress, according to new British research. Researchers studied mental health surveys given to 68,000 adult participants in addition to their mortality data. Of scrutinized individuals, those with psychological distress—even mild anxiety—had a greater risk of dying prematurely.
Participants with highest levels of psychological distress were 41 percent more likely to die from cancer or related complications. Causes of early death were not limited to poor coping methods or hypertension and heart disease, as is conventionally believed, however.
Early Death and the Biological Responses to Distress
Individuals in high-stress environments often cope in unhealthy ways—with poor eating habits, alcoholism, drug abuse, sedentary lifestyles, and the like. Study author Dr. David Batty of the University College London, however, factored in these elements and found unchanged results. He claims that the increased mortality in his study “is not simply due to people with higher levels of psychological distress having poor health behaviors.”
So, how can psychological distress shorten your life? Researchers believe stress may trigger biological changes in the body, making them prone to diabetes and heart disease. Fatty plaques in already narrow arteries may rupture due to spikes in adrenaline and other stress-related chemicals in the body, leading to stroke or heart attacks.
In another recent study, Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that accelerated aging could be a result of chronic anxiety due to faster shortening of the telomere, which has been linked to DNA changes possibly contributing to other chronic diseases like cancer and dementia.
Stress Can Increase Accident-Related Deaths
What’s more, raised anxiety levels and mental disquiet were associated with non-health-related causes like accidents and injuries. Dr. Christopher Cove of University of Rochester Medical Center in NY says that psychological distress can distract people—even in everyday situations like driving home from the office—and lead them to untimely ends.
The Quiet Killer
Individuals with blatantly high stress levels can modify their lifestyles and seek emotional therapy, but those with mild psychological distress—about a quarter of the adult population according to Dr. Tom Russ of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland—will show limited symptoms and not receive treatment.
Everyone can benefit from a healthy diet, moderate exercise, and stress management skills. The next time a friend has a Groupon for a yoga class, you might want to take him or her up on it, as yoga for depression and anxiety is just one strategy for de-stressing and avoiding early death.