Depression and physical illness: is there a link?

In the 17th century, the philosopher René Descartes argued that the mind and body are separate entities. While this dualistic idea has shaped much of modern science, recent scientific advances show that the dichotomy between mind and body is false.

For example, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote a book called Descartes’ Fallacy to prove for sure that our brains, emotions, and judgments are much more intertwined than previously thought. The results of the new study may further strengthen this fact.

Aoife O’Donovan, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, and her colleague Andrea Niles set out to study the impact of mental conditions such as depression and anxiety on a person’s physical health. Scientists studied the health status of more than 15 older adults over four years and published their findings in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Health Psychology. 

Anxiety and depression are similar to smoking

The study examined data on the health status of 15 pensioners aged 418 years. The data comes from a government study that used interviews to assess symptoms of anxiety and depression in participants. They also answered questions about their weight, smoking and illnesses.

Of the total participants, O’Donovan and her colleagues found that 16% had high levels of anxiety and depression, 31% were obese, and 14% of the participants were smokers. It turned out that people living with high levels of anxiety and depression were 65% more likely to have a heart attack, 64% more likely to have a stroke, 50% more likely to have high blood pressure and 87% more likely to have arthritis than those who did not have anxiety or depression.

“These increased chances are similar to those of participants who smoke or are obese,” says O’Donovan. “However, for arthritis, high anxiety and depression appear to be associated with a higher risk than smoking and obesity.”

Cancer is not associated with anxiety and stress.

Their research scientists also found that cancer is the only disease that does not correlate with anxiety and depression. These results confirm previous studies but contradict the belief shared by many patients.

“Our results are consistent with many other studies showing that psychological disorders are not strong contributors to many types of cancer,” says O’Donovan. “In addition to emphasizing that mental health matters for a range of medical conditions, it is important that we promote these zeros. We need to stop attributing cancer diagnoses to stories of stress, depression and anxiety.” 

“Symptoms of anxiety and depression are strongly associated with poor physical health, yet these conditions continue to receive limited attention in primary care settings compared to smoking and obesity,” says Niles.

O’Donovan adds that the findings highlight “the long-term costs of undertreated depression and anxiety and serve as a reminder that treating mental health conditions can save money for health care systems.”

“To our knowledge, this is the first study that directly compared anxiety and depression with obesity and smoking as potential risk factors for disease in a long-term study,” says Niles. 

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