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Managing Your Mental Health Earlier in Life May Lead To Better Physical Health

Illustration of young man struggling mentally.

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Key Takeaways

  • Researchers found that being hospitalized for a mental disorder increased the risk of hospitalization for physical disease and earlier mortality.
  • Early treatment of mental disorders could lower these risks and lead to a better quality of life.
  • Experts stress the need for collaboration between physical and mental healthcare providers on patient treatment.

Managing your mental health earlier in life may be the key to improving your overall physical health down the line.

Researchers studied more than 2.3 million people over 30 years and found that being hospitalized for a mental disorder increased the risk of hospitalization for physical disease and earlier mortality.

The trends were consistent across all participants, and remained even after accounting for preexisting physical conditions.

"We found that all mental disorders were associated with risk of later physical diseases," lead author Leah Richmond-Rakerd, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, tells Verywell. "So there do seem to be common mechanisms across disorders."

Still, this trend can be more than just a warning sign. "This is encouraging from a prevention standpoint because it means that treating any mental disorder in early life could be beneficial for later physical health," Richmond-Rakerd says.

The three-decade-long study was a collaboration between the University of Auckland, the University of Michigan, and Duke University in the U.S. Richmond-Rakerd and colleagues' findings were published on January 13 in JAMA Network.

What This Means For You

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health disorder, getting help as soon as possible could improve your overall life quality. Studies have found that mental and physical health are closely intertwined.

The Research

Over the 30-year study, researchers collected records on hospital admission and mortality for each individual.

Mental disorders that led to hospitalizations included:

  • Substance use
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Neurotic disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Unspecified categories

Chronic physical diseases included coronary heart disease, gout, diabetes, cancer, and stroke.

During the period, 20% of individuals were admitted to hospitals for physical disease, and 4.4% were admitted for a mental disorder. Those admitted for a physical disease were more likely to be male and older (born between 1928-1937). On the other hand, those admitted for mental disorders did not vary in gender and were more likely to be younger (born between 1968-1978).

"Physical diseases were overrepresented among individuals with a mental disorder," the authors write. About 32% of individuals admitted for a mental disorder were also later admitted for physical disease, which surpassed the population-wide prevalence of physical disease by 12%.

Link Between Mental and Physical Health

Did the mental disorders somehow cause physical disease? This question goes back to the dilemma between correlation and causation. 

"There's a range of factors," Richmond-Rakerd says, that could link mental disorders with later physical disease, such as challenges in accessing and maintaining good health care. If you struggle with mental health, you might face barriers to getting regular physical-health screenings and check-ups or may be less likely to participate in activities that benefit long-term health, such as regular exercise and healthy eating.

However, this study only found a correlation between the mental and physical when individuals developed a physical disease after hospitalization for a mental disorder. This lowers the chances that "that physical disease contributes to mental disorders rather than vice versa," the authors wrote.

"Evidence on this association has been accumulating in recent years," George Ploubidis, PhD, professor of population health and statistics at the University College of London Social Research Institute, tells Verywell. "If we also take into account that plausible mechanisms of action between mental health and physical health/mortality exist, I think it’s more likely that we are observing is a causal effect rather than just correlation."

Collaborating author Barry Milne, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Auckland, tells Verywell that regardless of how you look at the study, "it's interesting either way." The finding is simple: If you experience any mental disorder in life, you're more likely to develop a physical disease later on, regardless of gender, age, and type of disorder. "It doesn't matter what you presented with," Milne says. "Your risk was raised." 

Many of these connections have been made in the past. For example, substance abuse problems can lead to liver damage and lung cancer. Mood disorders can lead to a lack of exercise. In cases of depression, Milne says, "sometimes you just can't move off the couch."

"I view everything in terms of stress," Milnes says. Stress has been linked to overall health and noted for its "wear and tear on the body."

Implications for Treatment

"What these findings show is that you need to take these things seriously," Milne says. Even though it's hard to know exactly why mental and physical health are directly related, it's important to acknowledge that they are. Treatment can improve if both mental health professionals and physicians work in tandem to screen for disorders or diseases, as well as inform their patients about increased risk. 

Milne also notes that many who deal with mental health disorders shouldn't automatically assume they know why they're hurting. Open communication with clinicians can help you avoid misinterpreting symptoms, ensure you get adequate care, and make you more aware of stress-related behaviors that contribute to physical diseases like lack of exercise, smoking, and drinking. 

Ultimately, caring for your mental health is as essential as medical care. Early screening and treatment could be economically advantageous to society and government over the long-term. The authors note that lifetime health care costs per person with a mental disorder were more than 12% higher than the general population.

Because of this, Richmond-Rakerd encourages "collaborative cross-talk," between mental and physical health providers. "Our results call for more holistic approaches to treating mental health conditions, especially in young people," she says.

"The findings from this and other studies, show that investing in mental health services will not only improve mental health treatment but also reduce future risk of mortality and improve multiple physical health outcomes," Ploubidis says. "Achieving universal healthcare coverage for mental health is urgently needed, considering the rising burden of mental disorders worldwide."

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  1. Richmond-Rakerd L, D’Souza S, Milne B, Caspi A, Moffitt T. Longitudinal associations of mental disorders with physical diseases and mortality among 2.3 million New Zealand citizens. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(1):e2033448. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.33448

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