The importance of mental health to general health outcomes is often under-considered.
By definition, mental health is important to the experience of healthy ageing as it reflects more positive experiences in all areas of life, but it also impacts physical health itself.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of wellbeing where an individual can realise their full potential, be productive and contribute to the community, as well as cope with normal life stresses. Therefore, poor mental health inhibits these abilities.
Threats to good mental health include mental illness such as depression and anxiety disorders.
Depression and poor mental health impact a number of bodily systems. For example, the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, both function to increase the body’s physical responses to threat, and can be persistently activated by poor mental health.
This means poor mental health can lead to a number of detrimental effects including poorer cardiovascular health, increased inflammation, and poorer processing of blood sugars.
Poorer mental health is also associated with reduced physical activity, increased body weight, increased likelihood of smoking, and poorer adherence to medical treatment; all factors associated with wide-reaching physiological effects themselves.
The associations between mental health and physical health tend to be very strong. For example, having anxiety raises the risk of cardiovascular disease to a similar extent as if one were overweight or obese. The relationship between mental health and disease is often bi-directional as well – having poor health is often a contributing factor to poorer mental health.