Mild mental illness ‘linked to higher death risk’

Study shows even those with mild anxiety or depression at risk

People who suffer from mild mental health problems such as those with minor symptoms of anxiety and depression are at a greater risk from several major causes of death, finds a study published today.

The research, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), found the risk was raised even at lower levels of distress that would not usually come to the attention of mental health services.

It said that a quarter of the general population are estimated to suffer from these minor symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In a study partially funded by the Wellcome Trust, a team of researchers from University College London and the University of Edinburgh analysed data from over 68,000 adults aged 35 years and over who took part in the Health Survey for England from 1994 to 2004.

Their aim was to measure the role of psychological distress as a risk factor for death from cardiovascular disease, cancer and external causes occurring over an eight-year period.

Dr Tom Russ, clinical research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre and lead author of the report, said: “We found that psychological distress was a risk factor for death from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and external causes - the greater the distress, the higher the risk.

“However, even people with low distress scores were at an increased risk of death. Currently these people - a quarter of the adult population - are unlikely to come to the attention of mental health services due to these symptoms and may not be receiving treatment.”

He said the study should prompt research into whether treatment of these common symptoms can alter the increased risk of death.

Dr David Batty, senior author of the report, said that the link between mental distress and mortality remained even after taking into account other factors such as smoking, weight and exercise.

He said: “Therefore this increased mortality is not simply the result of people with higher levels of psychological distress smoking or drinking more, or taking less exercise.”

The study is the largest so far to show a dose-response relation between psychological distress and mortality and has potentially important implications for treatment, say the authors.

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