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Depression, anxiety can harm your health as much as smoking, obesity

Anxiety and depression can be as hard on your health as smoking and obesity, according to a new study by researchers at UC San Francisco. These mental health disorders are largely overlooked as risk factors for many different conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, headaches, and back pain.

The investigation was focused on the health data of more than 15,000 older adults over a four-year period. The researchers found that 16 percent of the individuals suffered from high levels of anxiety and depression, 31 percent were obese, and 14 percent were current smokers.

The study revealed that participants with high levels of anxiety and depression were 65 percent more likely to develop a heart condition, 64 percent more likely to have a stroke, 50 percent more prone to high blood pressure, and had an 87 percent higher risk for arthritis compared to participants without anxiety and depression.

“These increased odds are similar to those of participants who are smokers or are obese,” said study senior author Dr. Aoife O’Donovan. “However, for arthritis, high anxiety and depression seem to confer higher risks than smoking and obesity.”

Out of all the health complications that were examined, the study authors found that high levels of depression and anxiety were not associated with a greater risk of developing 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,” said Dr. O’Donovan. “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.”

The team noted that symptoms such as headache, upset stomach, back pain, and shortness of breath were substantially increased by stress and depression. For example, the chance of a headache was 161 percent higher among individuals suffering from anxiety and depression compared with no increase among the participants who were obese and smokers.

“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,” said study first author Dr. Andrea Niles. “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.”

The study is published in the journal Health Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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