Children with poor mental health at “greater risk” of physical problems in later life, study reveals

Children with poor mental health are at a greater risk of physical health problems in later life, a major study has revealed.

The coming-of-age research, published by Duke University in North Carolina, is among the first to explore how mental health struggles in early life could impact adulthood.

To carry out the study, the authors used a sample of “thousands” of New Zealanders whose health and wellbeing had been monitored since birth to around the age of 45.

It was found that those in middle age who had experienced “youthful psychopathology” had “aged at a faster pace”, had “greater declines in sensory, motor and cognitive functions” and were rated as “looking older” compared to peers without early mental health issues.

This held true even after external factors were taken into account, such as body weight, tobacco and alcohol consumption, and other physical diseases.

“Youthful psychopathology” is defined as having a mental health disorder in childhood, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia.

Commenting on the findings, author professor Terrie Moffitt said: “The same people who experience psychiatric conditions when they are young go on to experience excess age-related physical diseases and neurodegenerative diseases when they are older adults.”

The researchers said the study could be used to inform early mental health screenings and treatments to improve quality of life in later years.

“You can identify the people at risk for physical illnesses much earlier in life” said co-author Jasmin Wertz.

“If you can improve their mental health in childhood and adolescence, it’s possible that you might intervene to improve their later physical health and aging.”

The latest figures suggest that around one in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, with the most common illnesses being anxiety and depression.

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