Researchers find that negative mental health factors like feeling unhappy pick up the pace of aging more than health conditions like liver disease or smoking.
The rate at which we grow older rises exponentially relative to our chronological age, with age-related diseases accelerating the aging process further. While most researchers have focused on how physical disease contributes to age acceleration, not much work has been done to evaluate the effects of adverse psychological states. Along these lines, determining how psychological health affects lifespan may be of paramount importance. Delineating the psychological factors that affect aging could help guide treatment options, such as counseling, to put the brakes on accelerated aging.
As published in Aging, Zhavoronkov and colleagues from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging found that feeling unhappy, fearful, and/or hopeless accelerates aging faster than smoking and some age-related diseases like stroke or liver disease. The Buck Institute researchers used a newly devised digital model of aging to analyze a database of 11,914 people who reside in China, comparing a range of factors from blood chemistry to psychological characteristics. The findings suggest that by treating one’s psychological state, we may slow the pace of aging and live longer, healthier lives.
“Mental and psychosocial states are some of the most robust predictors of health outcomes — and quality of life — yet they have largely been omitted from modern healthcare,” said lead author and Insilico Medicine CEO Alex Zhavoronkov in a press release.
To find how adverse psychological states factor into accelerated aging, the California-based research team used an artificial intelligence-derived aging model. They found a handful of psychological factors that contribute to accelerated aging, including fearfulness, hopelessness, unhappiness, and restless sleep. Altogether, Zhavoronkov and colleagues estimated that these negative psychological factors may add as much as 1.65 years to one’s biological age – an age estimate based on physical capacity and ability to ward off age-related diseases. With an average age of participants above 60 years old, adding 1.65 years can have a substantial impact on overall health and probability of survival.
To compare the effects of negative psychological states to well-known harmful habits like smoking and age-related diseases, the research team measured the impact of smoking and disease. They found that smoking adds about another 1.25 years to a person’s biological age, while conditions like liver disease and stroke add 0.97 and 1.49 years, respectively. These findings suggest that negative thoughts/emotions contribute to accelerated aging more than smoking and a few serious age-related diseases.
Since Zhavoronkov and colleagues found that adverse psychological states accelerate aging more than smoking, it makes sense to target mental well-being to improve life quality and lifespan. The Buck Institute-based researchers came up with a free online program to measure psychological satisfaction called FuturSelf.AI. By completing a psychological questionnaire, one receives recommendations for graceful psychological aging, which may contribute to a longer and healthier life.
The paucity of research showing that mental health plays a key role in aging suggests an overemphasis on physical health in age-related diseases. Making sure that we age in safe, comfortable environments with adequate social support may facilitate having healthier psychological states like happiness and sleep without restlessness. Moreover, receiving sufficient counseling from trained professionals may aid to alleviate anxiety to help achieve psychological well-being.