December 18, 2018
2 min read

Anxiety, depression as predictive of poor future health as obesity, smoking

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Study findings published in Health Psychology indicated that anxiety and depression symptoms predicted greater incidence of nearly all medical illnesses and somatic symptoms.

Furthermore, the data revealed that anxiety and depression were as strongly predictive of negative subsequent physical health as obesity and smoking, and were even stronger predictors of arthritis.

"Anxiety and depression symptoms are strongly linked to poor physical health, yet these conditions continue to receive limited attention in primary care settings, compared to smoking and obesity," Andrea N. Niles, PhD, of the psychiatry department and Weill Institute for Neuroscience at University of California, San Francisco, said in a press release. "To our knowledge this is the first study that directly compared anxiety and depression to obesity and smoking as prospective risk factors for disease onset in long-term studies."

Niles and Aoife O'Donovan, PhD, also from UCSF, examined data from more than 15,000 older adults enrolled in the Health and Retirement study to determine the longitudinal connection between anxiety and depression symptoms at baseline and onset of self-reported physical health indices.

Anxiety and depression were as strongly predictive of negative subsequent physical health as obesity and smoking, according to researchers.

Over the course of 4 years, participants reported any medical illnesses — including heart disease, stroke, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer — and somatic symptoms — which included stomach issues, shortness of breath, dizziness, back pain, headache, pain and eyesight issues.

Overall, 16% of older adults enrolled in the study had anxiety and depression symptoms, 31% had obesity and 14% were current smokers, according to the press release. Niles and O’Donovan found that anxiety and depression symptoms independently increased risk for most physical health indices.

Specifically, participants with anxiety and depression symptoms were at 65% higher risk for a heart condition, 64% higher risk for stroke and 50% higher risk for high blood pressure compared with those without these symptoms, according to the release. In addition, participants with anxiety and depression symptoms were at 87% greater risk for arthritis.

"These increased odds are similar to those of participants who are smokers or are obese," O'Donovan, said in the release. "However, for arthritis, high anxiety and depression seem to confer higher risks than smoking and obesity."

Anxiety and depression also predicted greater incidence of most somatic symptoms, including headache, stomach upset, back pain and shortness of breath, the researchers found. Specifically, participants with these psychiatric symptoms were at 161% increased risk for headache than those without depressive and anxiety symptoms, according to the release.

The researchers did not find a link between anxiety and depression and 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 in the release. "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." – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.