Loneliness and unhappiness may accelerate aging faster than smoking

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Researchers have found that certain psychological issues — such as hopelessness, unhappiness, and loneliness — could increase a person’s biological age more than smoking. Jesse Morrow/Getty Images
  • Medical history, lifestyle, and genetics all play an important role in how quickly a person ages.
  • Recently, researchers have found that a person’s mental health is also a factor in their risk for accelerated aging.
  • According to researchers, certain psychological issues — such as hopelessness, unhappiness, and loneliness — increase a person’s biological age more than smoking.

Aging is a natural life process that everyone experiences.

However, the process is not always the same for everyone. Factors such as your medical history, lifestyle, and genetics can play an important role in what happens to your mind and body as you get older.

For example, past research shows smoking, diet, and stress accelerate biological aging.

Now, researchers from Deep Longevity Limited in Hong Kong, People’s Republic of China, have found evidence suggesting a person’s mental health affects aging just as much as physical health.

The researchers found that when certain psychological states are combined, it can increase a person’s biological age more than smoking.

This study was recently published in the journal Aging.

According to lead study author Fedor Galkin, director of Scientific Business Development at Deep Longevity Limited in Hong Kong, the main purpose of this study was to show people can improve their physical health by targeting their mental health.

“To be more specific, low-level aging processes can be affected by your emotional state,” Galkin told Medical News Today.

Galkin said the impact of psychology on a person’s biological age is an understudied subject due to scientific reductionism.

“In the (20th) century, scientific reductionism settled in practically every field of science,” he explained. “It did in biology — the organism consists of cells and molecules, so if we understand the molecules, we can understand the organism. This has narrowed our view in many aspects. One such instance is the study of aging. Aging is a multifaceted phenomenon with social and (economic)l components to it, but in biology, it is common to study it in a much more narrow sense.”

Galkin stated there are studies that link the psychology of aging to its molecular manifestations, but not that many.

“We know that childhood trauma or Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) accelerates epigenetic aging, (as) does psychological stress. Since there is a connection, we hypothesize that the physiological (low-level) pace of aging can be manipulated using psychological (high-level) therapies. This is why we built FuturSelf.AI, to provide a backbone for our new hybrid anti-aging approach.”

– Fedor Galkin, lead author of the study

To study the impact of mental health on aging, Galkin and his team developed a deep learning aging clock.

An aging clock is a statistical model that measures a person’s biological age instead of chronological age. To do this, an aging clock uses blood, genetic, and DNA testing to measure a person’s biological aging pace.

Researchers used the aging clock they developed to measure the effect of both physical and mental health factors on the aging of almost 12,000 Chinese adults from the CHARLS dataset.

Smoking represented the main physical factor.

Mental health concerns included depression, sleep issues, loneliness, feeling unhappy, and rarely hopeful. Additionally, researchers included a person’s social status — married, widowed, and/or living in a rural area.

Upon analyzing the data, researchers found all factors included in the analysis had a significant impact on the aging pace. The three largest impacts came from smoking (increased aging pace by 1.25 years), currently married (lowered aging pace by 0.59 years), and sleep issues (increased aging pace by 0.44 years).

Researchers also found when combined, all eight psychological variables included in their study accelerated a person’s aging by 1.65 years — a rate higher than smoking.

Galkin said this study brings attention to the overlooked benefits of maintaining good mental health.

“Quite frequently, mental health therapies are thought to only make you ‘feel good,’ but according to our study, they can tangibly extend your life,” Galkin said.

“If brought to the attention of (governments) or large organizations with millions of customers, using such studies as ours to create new policies can lead to the addition of eons of human life-years to the global economy. I hope that this new line of reasoning — deeply elaborated on by Sinclair in his (study) — will persuade such large entities to pay more attention to the mental health and longevity fields.”

Medical News Today also spoke about this study with Dr. Stella Panos, a neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, not involved in this study. She said there are multiple reasons why a person’s mental health might impact their aging speed.

“Mental health issues such as depression (and) anxiety can impact lifestyle,” Dr. Panos explained.

“People can be a little bit more sedentary, not attending to health factors in a manner that they could if they weren’t depressed or anxious. If somebody’s stressed, that can lead to poor health outcomes in general, just from the biology of it, and that increases [the] risk for general health conditions later on in life.”

“The other possibility would be the other way around. For [many] patients who have neurological or other chronic illnesses, there are high rates of depression, anxiety, and those types of mental health issues. We used to think it’s a response to the condition, like a situational response, but there’s actually a lot of research to suggest that there’s a biological component. For example, when people have a head injury one of the most common factors is depression. And they’ve seen this in various studies where they’ve shown there’s more likely a biological component to it as well.”

– Dr. Stella Panos, neuropsychologist

If a person experiences mental health concerns such as feeling unhappy, lonely, or depressed, Dr. Panos suggests they talk with others about it, including their doctor and mental health professional.

“I think it should be an open conversation,” she explained. “I think this is a time period where people are more comfortable discussing mental health issues.”

Dr. Panos recommended setting small goals when looking to make mental health changes. “When people are feeling that way, it’s really hard to make a change — it can feel really overwhelming,” she explained.

“I always tell people (to) make a very small goal, one that feels reasonable that you can do, and then you can increase that over time. So just reaching out to a friend and then going from there.”

Some actionable tips for taking care of your mental health include:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/loneliness-and-unhappiness-accelerate-aging-faster-than-smomking-study-shows