News & Media

Rochester Woman Online: Psychological Health & Longevity

Written by Lisa E. Ireland,

President & CEO of the LSF.

As a mother of two young adults, my concerns naturally gravitate towards their psychological well-being. In today's world, various factors converge to challenge our mental health. Every generation has had its share of trials and turbulence, but the issues that modern-day Americans encounter seem to be more nuanced and complex than ever. Statistics reflect the predicament we find ourselves in: the prevalence of generalized anxiety diagnoses and depression has been surging over the past two decades, affecting over a quarter of those aged over 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders.

Multiple components fuel the mental health crisis we experience. The abundance of overstimulating content disrupts our dopamine regulation, while inadequate physical activity takes a toll on our psychological health. Loneliness has reached epidemic levels, leaving individuals increasingly disconnected from their peers and their loved ones. New challenges continually emerge, further compounding mental health problems. My intent is not to demonize the current lifestyle options and the possibilities we are privileged to have at our disposal. Rather, I want to underline the fact that if we look at the daily habits of our compatriots across the country, we'll find many opportunities and openings for mental health illnesses to creep in. The COVID-19 crisis and ongoing global conflicts have exacerbated these issues. Anxiety and depression diagnoses quadrupled during the pandemic, and while the COVID crisis has subsided, the prevalence of both conditions continues to go up. Given these circumstances, addressing diseases that compromise our psychological well-being becomes crucial.

It is our mission at the Longevity Science Foundation (LSF) to make longevity medicine and care accessible, ultimately enabling people to live longer, healthier lives. We look at the problems associated with psychological health through the lens of lifespan and healthspan optimization, as both life quality and expectancy show significant dependency on mental well-being. Our colleagues from the University of Oxford published a study suggesting a chilling conclusion: those with severe mental health illnesses face a decrease in life expectancy ranging from 10 to 20 years, equivalent to the impact of smoking over a pack of cigarettes a day. In addition, Time magazine reported several extensive cohort studies that, in turn, indicate that both men and women with mental health challenges live, on average, 10 and 7 years less, respectively.

In this article, I want to look at the various ways mental health issues accelerate biological aging, examine the concept of psychological aging, the connections between aging biology and mental health, and suggest strategies for improvement.
Self-perception and Psychological Age.

Let's begin by examining the implications of self-perception and our subjective understanding of age. In a 2020 paper published in Aging magazine, researchers Maria Mitina, Sergey Young, and our Scientific Advisor, Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov, investigated the concept of psychological aging and the impact of self-perception on biological processes. The steady global increase in life expectancy allowed for a larger variability in our perception of age. People see themselves and others as younger or older than their chronological age suggests. Mitina, Young, and Zhavoronkov report that the subjective age we assign to ourselves significantly influences behavior, choices, well-being, and, ultimately, lifespan. Feeling younger is associated with improved mental and physical health, enhanced cognitive functions, and better outcomes in handling illnesses and their symptoms.

The National University of Singapore carried out a study that illustrates the importance of subjective outlook. Their research focused on Chinese elders in Singapore, and their findings demonstrate that subjective assessments of life quality and well-being are inherently linked to health and longevity outcomes. Seniors in good health and high spirits have higher odds of survival than seniors with good health but a less optimistic outlook. Similarly, seniors with poor physical health but positive spirits have a greater chance of survival than their counterparts with poor physical health and negative perspectives.

Mental Health and Biology of Aging.

Biological aging, a driver of many debilitating diseases that escalate healthcare costs and national debts, stems from a complex amalgamation of different factors. The connection between biological aging and mental well-being goes beyond our tendencies to compromise health when affected by psychological issues. There are intricate biological processes that link psychological disorders and aging. To put it plainly, mental health problems affect our chemistry and make us age quicker.

Research from King's College London (KCL), an LSF partner institution, demonstrated that individuals affected by mental health illnesses have blood markers indicative of a higher biological age (relative to their chronological age). According to Julian Mutz, the postdoc research associate at KCL, those with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorders were found to be biologically older by 0.7, 1, and 2 years, respectively. Mutz highlights that increased biological age in psychologically unwell individuals could also explain a different correlation: people with psychological conditions see a higher prevalence of age-related illnesses.

In their previously-mentioned paper, Mitina, Young, and Zhavoronkov link stressful events with specific responses of the immune system. Stress can be a trigger for increased production of pro-inflammatory agents, small proteins that are, in turn, associated with various age-related illnesses. This connection works the other way around, too: age-related diseases are often a major source of stress themselves. The authors also bring up the fact that depression corresponds with higher cortisol levels, eliciting negative responses from the immune system.
A Call to Action.

It is essential to realize your own capacity for personal health and lifespan optimization. Genetics do play a role, but it's a lot smaller than commonly believed. What's far more likely to have a profound impact on our health is epigenetics - our bodies' response to environments and behaviors we subject them to. Mental well-being is a fundamental component of a long and healthy life, and a positive outlook along with healthy habits are tied to a variety of health benefits. Recalling our previous article on Blue Zones, a sense of purpose and meaningful existence bring down the likelihood of developing mental disorders and decrease mortality risks. Maintaining strong social ties and community involvement are other known ways of optimizing lifespan and healthspan.

As important as personal choices are, we cannot fight the ongoing mental health crisis without collective action. Venture capitalists, angel investors, and non-profit organizations like ours help propel important therapies and treatments that aid humanity in tackling mental illnesses. The investment firm LongeVC, run by our founding team, is among those who recognize the importance of psychological well-being for longevity, investing in companies like Freedom Biosciences, which develops psychedelic-based therapeutics. Our organization, the LSF, had a grant call on psychedelics, allowing scientists all over the world to submit research aimed at solving brain health issues, including those of a psychological nature. The LSF, in collaboration with our first academic partner, KCL, and Aging Research at King's (ARK), explores the intersection of longevity and mental health, promoting innovative approaches to complex and treatment-resistant conditions through psychedelics. Join us in the fight against psychological diseases and biological aging by supporting our work. Together, we will add years to our life and life to our years.

Access the full RWO October 2023 edition here.
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