The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.
There's truth to the adage that you're only as old as you feel. "Physical well-being and subjective well-being are two sides of the same coin," says Howard Friedman, author of The Longevity Project, a research-based look at who lives the longest and why. "Mental health affects physical health, and physical health affects mental health."
Research paints a compelling argument. Adults with serious mental illness like schizophrenia die about 25 years earlier than the general population, according to a 2007 report from the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. They're 3.4 times more likely to die of heart disease or diabetes, 3.8 times more likely to die in an accident, 5 times more likely to die of respiratory ailments, and 6.6 times more likely to die of pneumonia or flu, found the team led by Joseph Parks, director of the Missouri Institute of Mental Health.
Why? They often get little exercise, leading to obesity and hiking the odds of diabetes and heart disease. They're also more likely than others to smoke and have alcohol and drug-abuse problems. It's common for their medical needs to slip through the cracks, too, because they often cannot adequately advocate for their own health.
But evidence of the mind-body connection transcends serious mental illness and the unhealthy habits that often go along with it. Take negative emotions, for example. While they may not cause a disease, they appear to accelerate its progression, says Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of A Long Bright Future. Research suggests that HIV infections progress faster in gay men who are closeted than those who live openly. That's likely because the brain translates that fear of rejection and isolation into physical stress, which can weaken the immune system. "We're only beginning to understand the potential mechanisms that could be involved," she says. "But it's clear that people who are more positive are more likely to survive, and to survive longer."
In one study, older people were up to 35 percent less likely to die during a five-year period if they reported feeling happy, excited, and content on a typical day. That was true regardless of factors like chronic health problems, depression, and financial security, according to findings published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And earlier this month, after analyzing more than 200 studies on cardiovascular risks and emotional state, Harvard researchers reported that optimism, hope, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with lowered likelihood of heart disease and stroke.
Social psychologists report similar results, including hints that attitudes about aging count, too. A research team at Yale University and the National Institute on Aging looked at surveys taken by 386 men and women under age 50, and then studied their health records four decades later. Those with the worst outlook on aging, who described older people as "feeble, helpless, and absent-minded," were significantly more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those with more positive views on growing old. Likewise, research suggests that people who perceive themselves as being in poor health—even if they aren't—may die sooner than those who consider themselves healthy.
Perhaps it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you view older people as active, healthy members of society, there's a good chance you'll take care of yourself as you age, continuing to eat well and exercise. But if you feel doomed to an enfeebled existence, you might be more inclined to let yourself go. Longevity scientists have found that people who perceive aging as a positive experience are more likely visit the doctor regularly, eat a balanced diet, maintain an appropriate weight, use a seat belt, and avoid tobacco.
Since there's no question that mental health affects longevity, focus on how to preserve yours—and how to cope with trouble when it arrives. Consider these strategies:
Exercise. Being physically active enhances mental health: It boosts energy and confidence, lifting your mood for up to 12 hours later. Being active doesn't necessarily mean going to the gym or pumping iron, either. Anything that gets you moving—hula-hooping, dancing, walking the dog—has been shown to increase emotional well-being. Try yoga, for example. It may help shield against depression. In a small 2010 study, researchers found that three hour-long sessions a week boosted participants' levels of the brain chemical GABA, which typically translates into improved mood and decreased anxiety.
Join a community organization, keep up a job, or volunteer. Friedman recalls a 100-year-old man who is "still working, albeit at a reduced pace, and still very involved in the social club he joined in 1937." That's key to boosting mental health and, in turn, longevity, he says: "We've found that 'cheer up' is useless advice, and even worse is 'don't stress' or 'take it easy,'" he says. "It's clear that being conscientiously involved in meaningful work or volunteer activities will improve both your mental health and your physical health." Indeed, people who volunteer are more likely to report a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives, as well as less stress and depression than non-volunteers.
Get professional help if you need it. About 80 percent of people treated for depression with drugs and therapy improve, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Antidepressant medications can also make a big difference in quality of life and emotional well-being. Still, treatment doesn't work for everyone; a mental health professional can help determine the best course of action.
Eat well. Shaping your diet the right way can boost energy, lower the risk of developing certain diseases, fuel the brain, and counteract the way stress affects your body. Certain foods, for example, affect mood—for better or worse. Earlier this year, Spanish researchers linked fast food—burgers, hot dogs, and pizza—with feelings of depression, according to a study published in Public Health Nutrition. The more fast food and junk food the study participants consumed, the stronger their blues. Dietary changes can trigger chemical and physiological changes within the brain that alter our behavior and emotions. Try lobster, oysters, clams, and other shell fish, which contain hefty amounts of selenium, a mineral that helps combat mental decline, anxiety, and depression.