If you were obese, smoked or had a psychological disorder in adolescence, you might age faster than your peers as an adult, new research has found.
Adolescents ages 11 to 15 who were obese, smoked cigarettes daily, or had a psychological disorder, such as anxiety, depression or ADHD, biologically aged nearly three months faster every year than their peers, according to a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The research used data from 910 people who were part of the Dunedin Study, a long-term investigation that tracked the health and behavior of participants born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, following them from age 3 until they were 45 years old.
By age 45, the new study found that participants who had two or more of those three general health concerns – smoking, obesity or psychological disorders – as adolescents walked 11.2 centimeters per second slower, had an older brain age by two and a half years, and had an older facial age by nearly four years than those who didn’t.
The factors researchers used to measure aging included body mass index, waist-to-hip ratio, blood tests, hormones for appetite regulation and fat storage, blood pressure, cholesterol, tooth decay, periodontal disease, cardiorespiratory fitness, and brain MRIs.
The study also examined a fourth health concern, with very different results. Participants who had asthma during adolescence – most of whom were treated – weren’t biologically older at age 45, compared with those without asthma. These findings remained constant even when the authors considered possible confounders such as socioeconomic disadvantages or adverse childhood experiences.
“This adds to that past research by expanding it to these four conditions, of which we only found that three were associated with accelerated aging,” said the study’s first author Kyle Bourassa, a clinical psychology researcher and advanced research fellow at the Durham VA Health Care System. This study “shows that these have independent effects, so each of them is exerting their own association with later aging.”
The researchers hoped that identifying health conditions in adolescence that are associated with faster aging could help medical professionals slow aging and prevent poor health later in life, according to the study.
Factors behind faster aging
There are several reasons why smoking, psychological disorders and obesity could accelerate aging, the authors said: All can impact factors linked with accelerated aging, such as greater inflammation and oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules from environmental sources like cigarette smoke or pesticides, which can damage the body’s cells.
“There’s a long history of that kind of research in terms of how smoking is damaging at the cellular level but also can result in the kinds of health conditions that we associate with biological aging, like (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), lung cancer, things like that,” Bourassa said.
People with mental health problems are more likely to exercise less or have a poor diet, which have been associated with faster aging, Jasmin Wertz, a postdoctoral associate with the Moffitt & Caspi team at Duke University in North Carolina, told CNN last year.
“We think about depression as a disease that originates in the brain with chemical disturbances and things like that. But depression probably is a systemic illness that affects the entire body,” said Dr. Brent Forester, chief of the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, in a previous interview with CNN.
“The longer I’ve done this work, and the longer that I’ve worked with older adults in particular, the more I think of psychiatric illness as not a brain disorder, but as a whole-body disorder,” said Forester, who wasn’t involved in the new study.
One potential reason participants with asthma fared better than those with other conditions could be that, in the 1980s, asthma was better managed than the other three conditions, the study authors said.
“No participants in this cohort were prescribed stimulants for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were not yet in use for adolescent depression and anxiety during the study period,” the authors wrote. “Whereas 81.1% of the adolescents with asthma received some type of treatment, which could have mitigated the implications for biological aging.”
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“The hope is if we were to study a cohort now, a much higher proportion of those children and adolescents are actually going to be treated for these things, which will reduce the risk of accelerated aging later in life,” Bourassa said. “Our paper reaffirms that those are important treatments and those kinds of investments younger in the lifespan could net big benefits in terms of both health and the cost of health care later on as well.”
Counteracting faster aging risk
Getting treatment early for adolescents experiencing any of these conditions can benefit both their mental and physical health, Bourassa said.
How to get help
“We know that accelerated aging is associated with poor health across a wide array of conditions,” Bourassa said. Those effects, he added, can include greater risk for cognitive decline, early mortality, developing chronic diseases and those diseases progressing at a quicker rate.
“If we can treat these conditions, slow people’s aging, then that’s going to have health benefits across the lifespan and basically through their entire body,” he said.