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Chronic Physical Health Conditions Increase Depression Risk Later in Life, Study Shows

A person with dark hair holds their chest, while laying on a gray couch, under a blanket.

Key Takeaways

  • Dealing with two or more physical long-term health conditions increases the risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Respiratory and gastrointestinal/pain conditions were the strongest predictors of depression and anxiety.

Dealing with a chronic health condition can take its toll. According to a recently published study in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, navigating two or more physical long-term health conditions was associated with subsequent depression and anxiety concerns.

With COVID-19 putting a necessary focus on health for many, this may be an opportune time to better understand the impact of multiple physical health conditions on one's ability to be functioning well mentally.

Especially given how much more focus is often placed on physical health, as opposed to mental health, this research bodes well for greater outreach efforts to ensure that individuals have adequate mental health support.

Understanding the Research

Researchers looked at more than 150,000 middle-aged participants in England, Scotland, and Wales who had responded to an online mental health questionnaire in 2016 as part of the larger UK Biobank study. Their physical health had been assessed in earlier surveys conducted between 2006 and 2010.

As the number of physical long-term health conditions increased in participants, the research demonstrated a greater likelihood for incidents of poor mental health, including persistent depression and anxiety.

In terms of limitations, it can be difficult to ascertain causality from observational studies, and self-report brings some potential bias. Also, about 97% of the participants were White, so this study can’t tell us much about how ethnic minorities might be affected.

More Mental Health Support Needed

Anthony Alan Thomalla, PhD, a licensed psychologist at ABC Resources, says, “The takeaway is that people do better when they have family support, spiritual support, and medical support including psychological.”

While access to mental health counselors, ranging from social workers to psychologists in a primary care medical setting has grown in recent years, Thomalla highlights that such services still often remain insufficient.

Thomalla says, “It is not surprising that people with multiple physical conditions struggle more as they enter a phase of their life when people tend to be more vulnerable and isolated. If you have multiple physical challenges it is important to monitor mental health as you age. It is easier to address issues when you see a little smoke as opposed to waiting for a five-alarm fire. If you do not address these issues as they arise they will devour physical reserves that you cannot afford to waste.”

Anthony Alan Thomalla, PhD

If you have multiple physical challenges it is important to monitor mental health as you age. It is easier to address issues when you see a little smoke as opposed to waiting for a five-alarm fire.

— Anthony Alan Thomalla, PhD

Grief Over a Healthy Body

Psychologist Shamin Ladhani, PsyD, says, “Understanding that your physical health impacts your mental health means having self-awareness about how your chronic condition is impacting your life.”

If there is difficulty coping with health decline, Ladhani encourages individuals to validate those feelings, as many people that develop a chronic condition go through a period of grieving over the loss of a healthy body. “The public needs to know that psychologists, specifically health and medical psychologists, have training and expertise that can help patients to manage and cope with chronic illness. We have studies that show that psychological techniques can improve blood flow, lower pain levels, reduce blood pressure, and lower blood sugar levels, just to name a few,” she says.

Ladhani says, “It is not clear that this study takes into account how diverse populations are impacted, as often individuals from underserved or marginalized backgrounds are more at risk for developing chronic health and chronic mental health conditions, and the article does not look at or address other causes for the development of mental health issues."

Shamin Ladhani, PsyD

We have studies that show that psychological techniques can improve blood flow, lower pain levels, reduce blood pressure, and lower blood sugar levels, just to name a few.

— Shamin Ladhani, PsyD

What This Means For You

As demonstrated by this research, navigating multiple physical long-term health conditions increases the risk of subsequent depression and anxiety challenges. Such findings reinforce the need for additional programs and services to be readily available to support mental health needs, especially when navigating chronic health issues. Especially given how aging can increase social isolation and vulnerability, mental health resources can be instrumental in prioritizing public health.

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  1. Ronaldson A, Arias de la Torre J, Prina M, et al. Associations between physical multimorbidity patterns and common mental health disorders in middle-aged adults: A prospective analysis using data from the UK BiobankLancet Reg Health Eur. Published online June 22, 2021. doi:10.1016/j.lanepe.2021.100149