People suffering from anxiety and depression may be at higher risk for developing other major health conditions like heart disease, suggests new research, perhaps at levels comparable to smoking and obesity – though the “perhaps” in this case is significant.
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 (note: the original research is a “longitudinal panel study that surveys a representative sample of approximately 20,000 people in America,” an important limitation of which I’ll discuss in a moment).
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 correlative 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 correlation 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.”
It’s important to note a limitation of this study (not uncommon with studies of this type) that the data in the original study was culled from self-reports as opposed to clinical evaluation of patients. This isn’t incidental, since self-reports can be difficult to verify and subject to interpretation. The methodology in this case relied on in-depth interviews and other survey methods, but the results are still observational, not clinical.
Also worth noting, the link between depression and major health conditions like heart disease is increasingly evident in research of the past decade, and the latest study is echoing a finding that is difficult to ignore.
The researchers who conducted the latest study 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 research of this type (note the limitation discussed above), the results from the latest study don’t prove an association, but they may point to significant potential risk factors.