Researchers publishing in BMC Medicine have found that there is a relationship between biomarkers of aging and measurements of health and mental well-being .
“Healthy lifestyle” is not just a phrase
It is very well known that unhealthy behaviors are strongly linked to adverse health outcomes. For example, alcoholism is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease , as is obesity . These activities, or lack of activities, are all too common around the world; in Europe, for example, nearly half of adults never exercise , which places them at greater risk for mental disorders .
These researchers sought to determine if such factors have direct effects on aging. To that end, they analyzed two different biomarkers: telomere length, a measurement of telomere attrition, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) content, a measurement of mitochondrial dysfunction, along with measurements of mental and physical health.
A somewhat broad cohort
This study used data from the Belgian Health Interview Survey (BHIS). After exclusions that narrowed the cohort population to eligible adults, data from 6,054 BHIS participants was found to be usable. A fraction of BHIS participants also participated in the Belgian Health Examination Survey (BELHES); after exclusions for data quality, 739 BEHLES participants were included for this study. Data regarding mtDNA and telomere length was only derived from the BELHES group.
The BHIS included questions on vitality, life satisfaction, self-reported health status, depression, and anxiety alongside standard questions regarding socioeconomic status and lifestyle. For ease of analysis, the researchers built a composite score of five lifestyle indicators: BMI, smoking frequency, exercise and sporting activities, alcohol consumption, and a dietary score that increased with fruit and vegetable consumption and decreased with snack and soda consumption.
Surprising and unsurprising results
Some of the results were surprising. Men had 6.41% shorter telomeres, 8.03% less mtDNA, slightly worse lifestyle scores, and a slightly higher incidence of psychological distress. The effects of education were unsurprising, with less education being associated with worse outcomes, and couples with children were reported as being healthier than couples without children. Some parts of Belgium were also notably healthier than others in multiple aspects.
Lifestyle scores and mental well-being were heavily linked. People who lived unhealthy lifestyles were much more likely to have self-reported psychological distress, a lack of vitality, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. Lifestyle scores were, as expected, associated with slightly longer telomeres and more mtDNA.
Interestingly, there were no strong associations between many mental conditions and aging biomarkers. The only associations found to have statistical significance were that severe psychological distress and suicidal ideation were linked to less mtDNA.
While it largely relied on self-reporting, and there was a time delay between BHIS and BELHES data gathering, this study provided evidence that is difficult to refute. However, it did not prove causality, and the causal flow could be going in both directions at once; people whose lifestyles are leading them to rapid aging may have their health further negatively impacted by their rapid aging. This study, and others like it, serve as sobering reminders that while there are not yet any commercialized therapies that reverse aging, there are certainly behaviors that are widely considered to slow it down – or speed it up.