Back in the early 1990’s Duke University research found that brain scans of depressed elderly subjects showed quicker loss of brain volume compared to those that did not suffer with depression. Researchers reported that the accelerated aging went beyond the obvious unhealthy habits such as diet and lack of exercise.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, writer Shirley S. Wang reported that medical science is finding more and more that psychological disorders are showing up as diseases in the body, not just in the mind. Diseases that would normally be associated with old age are showing up in younger individuals who have dealt with or who are dealing with depression, psychological stress and post – traumatic stress disorder for long periods of time. To name a few, these diseases include dementia, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. (An earlier article, Mental Health in Later Life: A Guidebook, may be found on the Care for You website.)
At the cellular level, chromosomal changes are speeding up; better known as “accelerated aging”. This is alerting science to look at emotions as a symptom of the psychological issues affecting the body. Mood will be looked at as an indicator of some larger health problem.
According to Dr. Owen Wolkowitz, psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, we as a society will no longer look at depression as a mental illness. Along with his research colleagues, Dr. Wolkowitz wants to understand the connection of the mental with the physical so as to provide a better diagnosis/treatment of mental illness and help improve the memory of those with cognitive problems.
Recent studies are looking at the protective coverings at the end of chromosomes as indicators of problems. These coverings are called telomeres and as one ages, they become shorter. Clinical studies at UCSF and in Sweden show similar results in that there is a link between depression and the length of this protective covering.
Scientists and researchers want to continue working to find out how serious the psychological episodes must be to shorten the telomeres, as well as the genetics’ vs. life events’ effects on age-related diseases and why some stressed people don’t experienced shortened telomeres.
The enzyme telomerase protects the covering’s length and through research, Dr. Wolkowitz’ team has determined that some people have biological capabilities to produce higher anti-inflammatory proteins and antioxidant levels.
Lifestyle changes can also increase the levels of this enzyme, as proven by research involving patients diagnosed with prostate cancer. Dr. Dean Ornish, creator of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, along with UCSF’s research group, worked with this group and after three months found that telomerase levels had increased. The increase occurred after lifestyle changes were made – including lowering psychological distress and cholesterol.
Since telomere length can be determined through a blood sample, current research at UCSF is comparing the test results of study participants with those of average people of the same age. Researchers will be tracking these participants to see if, after given this information, they have a greater desire to improve their lifestyles.