Mental health is a crucial aspect of overall health, affecting not only emotional wellbeing but also physical health and longevity. Mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being and can impact how individuals feel, think, and behave. Mental health can affect an individual’s ability to cope with stress, maintain relationships, make healthy choices, and lead a fulfilling life. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of well-being in which an individual can realize their potential, cope with normal life stressors, work productively, and contribute to their community.
Longevity refers to an individual’s lifespan, while healthspan refers to the years of life spent in good health, free from chronic disease or disability. While advances in medical technology have contributed to increased lifespan, living longer does not always equate to living healthier. In recent years, there has been growing interest in understanding the factors that contribute to healthspan and longevity. While genetics play a role in determining lifespan and healthspan, it’s less than most think, as little as 10% or less. Environmental factors, lifestyle choices and mental health are the predominant factors that impact an individual’s ability to live a long and healthy life. We cover the impacts of genetics and family history on longevity here.
This article explores the relationship between mental health and longevity, with a focus on healthspan. Specifically, this article will address the questions posed, including the practice of relaxation techniques, stress management, optimism, a sense of purpose, engagement in mentally stimulating activities, and the impact of these factors on the hallmarks of aging.
Relaxation Techniques and Stress Management
The practice of relaxation techniques, such as meditation, prayer, or intentional relaxation, has been shown to have numerous health benefits. These techniques can help individuals manage stress, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve overall mental health. Studies have shown that relaxation techniques can also improve physical health outcomes, such as reducing blood pressure and improving immune function (Stanczykiewicz, 2015).
Stress is a common experience that can impact an individual’s mental and physical health. Chronic stress can contribute to the development of numerous chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression (Cohen, 2019). However, individuals who practice relaxation techniques have been shown to have lower levels of stress and better stress management skills (Stanczykiewicz, 2015).
Optimism and Sense of Purpose
Optimism and a sense of purpose are also essential components of mental health that can impact longevity. Optimism is the belief that positive outcomes are possible and that things will work out in the end. Research has shown that optimism is associated with numerous health benefits, including better immune function, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower rates of depression (Boehm, 2018).
Similarly, having a sense of purpose or meaning in life can also impact mental and physical health. Studies have shown that individuals who report a sense of purpose in life have lower rates of depression and anxiety, better sleep quality, and a lower risk of mortality (Ryff, 2016).
Engagement in Mentally Stimulating Activities
Engagement in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, solving puzzles, or learning new skills, is also associated with better mental health and cognitive function. Studies have shown that individuals who engage in mentally stimulating activities have a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia (Wilson, 2013). Similarly, individuals who speak multiple languages have been shown to have better cognitive function and a lower risk of cognitive decline (Bak, 2014).
Engagement in mentally stimulating activities has also been shown to improve mental health outcomes. For example, one study found that engagement in mentally stimulating activities was associated with a lower risk of depression in older adults (Wilson, 2013).
Hallmarks of Aging Impacted by Mental Health Factors
The relationship between mental health and longevity is complex and multifaceted. Mental health factors such as stress management, optimism, sense of purpose, and engagement in mentally stimulating activities can impact the hallmarks of aging, which are the biological processes that contribute to aging and age-related diseases.
Mitochondrial dysfunction, which refers to the decline in the function of mitochondria, the organelles responsible for producing energy in cells, has been linked to numerous age-related diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases and cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that stress can contribute to mitochondrial dysfunction by increasing oxidative stress and inflammation (Picard, 2018). Therefore, stress management techniques, such as relaxation techniques and mindfulness practices, may help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation and improve mitochondrial function.
Telomere shortening, which occurs as we age and from factors that include excess oxidative stress, has been found to occur as a result of psychological stress. In one study, researchers state, “we provide evidence that psychological stress–both perceived stress and chronicity of stress–is significantly associated with higher oxidative stress, lower telomerase activity, and shorter telomere length, which are known determinants of cell senescence and longevity, in peripheral blood mononuclear cells from healthy premenopausal women. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low stress women” (Epel, 2004).
Cellular senescence, which is the process by which cells stop dividing and become dysfunctional, is another hallmark of aging. As previously mentioned, chronic stress may contribute to cellular senescence by increasing inflammation and DNA damage (Epel, 2004).
Loss of proteostasis, which refers to the decline in the ability of cells to maintain protein homeostasis, is also a hallmark of aging. Studies have shown that chronic stress can contribute to the loss of proteostasis by impairing the functioning of the proteasome, the cellular machinery responsible for degrading damaged or misfolded proteins (Dantuma, 2017). However, engagement in mentally stimulating activities has been shown to improve proteostasis and reduce the risk of age-related diseases (Wilson, 2013).
Inflammaging, which is a chronic low grade inflammation, can be impacted by stress. Studies have found that long term psychological stress can lead to chronic inflammation and can result in diseases like atherosclerosis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and depression. In fact, “75% – 90% of human diseases is” in one way or another “related to the activation of stress system” (Liu et al., 2017). Chronic stress can lead to cytokine dysregulation (Miller et al., 2007), glucocorticoid receptor resistance (Cohen et al., 2012), and an increase in myeloid cell production (Powell et al., 2013) – all of which contribute to systemic inflammation.
Mental Health & Longevity
Mental health is an essential component of overall health that can impact both healthspan and lifespan. Relaxation techniques, stress management, optimism, sense of purpose, and engagement in mentally stimulating activities are all factors that can improve mental health and reduce the risk of age-related diseases. These factors can impact the hallmarks of aging, including mitochondrial dysfunction, cellular senescence, and loss of proteostasis, among others. Therefore, promoting mental health and engaging in practices that improve mental health may help individuals live longer, healthier lives.
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