Do People With Mental Illness Age Faster Than People Who Are Unaffected?

Last week I attended a talk by Dr. Owen Wolkowitz, psychiatrist and professor at UCSF Langley Porter Institute.  His answer to this question is “yes.”  He refers to mental illness as “disorders of the whole body.”

There is data that people with mental illness die, on an average, 25 years earlier than people in the general population.  30-40% of people with mental illness die of suicide or accidents, but the remaining 60% die of natural causes earlier than the general population.

There are some obvious reasons as to why:

1)      Poor lifestyle – smoking , drinking, illicit drug use, bad nutrition

2)      Poor access to healthcare, poor medication compliance, homelessness

3)      Medication side effects such as obesity, increased lipids

Less obvious are some of the behind the scenes factors, such as inflammation due to stress.

It is also possible that mental illness actually changes our DNA, in particular our telomeres. Telomeres are the pieces of DNA at the ends of the chromosomes. Each time a cell divides, it duplicates its chromosomes, and a little bit of the end of the chromosome is lost. At some point, too much information is lost, and instead of dividing, the cell dies. This is the aging process in a nutshell. We can’t have cells that live forever (that’s what happens in cancer, the mechanism gets screwed up and the cell keeps dividing forever.)  Telomerase, the enzyme that adds the telomeres to the end of the chromosome, can be measured in the blood, and can be used as a marker for aging.


Studies have been done on telomeres of people with mental illness. Studies of people with depression show telomere shortening. Adults with early life trauma have shorter telomeres, demonstrating perhaps a “scar in the brain.”  There’s evidence that people with schizophrenia who take anti-psychotic meds have longer telomeres than people with schizophrenia who aren’t taking any medication- demonstrating a potential benefit of medication. It’s possible that anti-psychotics can have an effect by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.

The good news is that telomeres can lengthen. Factors known to extend telomere length to a healthy level include exercise, dietary restraint, multivitamins, folate, Omega 3’s, stress management, statins, estrogen and social support. So while good nutrition, good sleep, exercise and avoidance of illicit drugs are good plans for everyone, they are especially important for people with mental illness, or people at risk for mental illness.

Link to article on telemore shortening:


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