A New Study Says Untreated Anxiety & Depression Can Affect Your Health Like Smoking

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Anxiety and depression can be challenging mental illnesses for many people, but fortunately, effective treatments options are available. If anxiety and depression is left untreated, however, the long-term costs to your health can be high. According to a new study published in the journal Health Psychology from researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Department of Psychiatry and the San Francisco VA Medical Center, untreated anxiety and depression can predict a slew of chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, headaches, spinal issues, stomach problems, and even arthritis. According to the press release from UCSF, untreated depression and anxiety might be as bad for your health as smoking.

For the study, lead study author Andrea Niles, PhD, and co-author Aoife O’Donovan, PhD, looked at the health data of over 15,000 older adults over a period of four years. They discovered that 16 percent of participants lived with depression and anxiety, and 14 percent were smokers, per the press release on the study. Researchers found that study participants with ongoing anxiety and depression faced a 65 percent increased risk for heart disease, a 64 percent higher chance of stroke, 50 percent increased odds for for high blood pressure, and were more likely to develop arthritis by 87 percent.

“These increased odds are similar to those of participants who are smokers,” O'Donovan said in a press release. “However, for arthritis, high anxiety and depression seem to confer higher risks than smoking.” That's right — higher.

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The Economic Times reports that, interestingly, unlike the other chronic health conditions studied, untreated depression and anxiety didn’t predict a higher cancer risk in study participants. O’Donovan said, “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,” The Economic Times reported. “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,” O’Donovan further stated in a press release.

O’Donovan noted that the outcomes of this study show the “long-term costs of untreated depression and anxiety,” while also underscoring the need for more awareness among medical providers of how untreated mental illness can impact long-term physical health outcomes (which further underscores how mental health and physical health are interrelated). “They serve as a reminder that treating mental health conditions can save money for health systems,” O’Donovan said, not to mention quality of life for patients living with these conditions.

It’s important to note that, despite the potential physical health problems that can result from mental health issues, depression and anxiety are treatable. If you're concerned about your mood, you can talk to your GP about finding treatment options, whether that's talk therapy (in person or online), group therapy, or lifestyle changes. With a sound treatment plan and adequate support, people living with mental illnesses can lead long, healthy lives. If you’re living with depression and/or anxiety, make sure to reach out if you need help — support is available to you, and effective treatment plans can do a lot to help you manage your symptoms.