Skip to main content

17 February 2021

New research investigates how early-life mental health difficulties may lead to poor physical health and accelerated ageing in adulthood

Researchers from King’s College London and Duke University find that mental health problems in early life may be associated with poorer physical health and accelerated ageing in adulthood.

Middle aged man looking out a window looking depressed

Professor Terrie Moffitt, Chair in Social Behaviour & Development at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University worked with colleagues to conduct two new studies investigating the association between early mental health problems and physical health in adulthood.

In the first study, published today in JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers used longitudinal data from The Dunedin Study, which has tested and monitored the health and wellbeing of a thousand New Zealanders born in 1972 and ‘73 from their birth to past age 45. The investigation found that participants with a history of early mental health difficulties were more likely to have physical health problems and exhibit faster ageing in adulthood. These health problems included declines in sensory, motor, and cognitive functions, and participants with a mental health history were rated as looking older than their peers. This pattern held even after the data were controlled for health factors such as overweight, smoking, medications, and prior physical disease. Their younger mental health issues included mainly anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, but also schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and eating disorders.

The same people who experience psychiatric conditions when they are young go on to experience excess age-related physical diseases and neurodegenerative diseases when they are older adults.

Professor Terrie Moffitt, senior author

A second study by the same team, which appeared in JAMA Network Open in January, used a different approach and looked at 30 years of hospital records for 2.3 million New Zealanders aged 10 to 60 from 1988 to 2018. It also found a strong connection between early-life mental health diagnoses and later-life medical and neurological illnesses.

The analysis showed that young individuals with mental disorders were more likely to develop subsequent physical diseases and to die earlier than people without mental disorders. People with mental illnesses experienced more hospitalisations for physical conditions, spent more time in hospitals and accumulated more healthcare costs over the subsequent 30 years.

Researchers say early mental health interventions could prevent later physical health problems and reduce subsequent healthcare costs.

Investing more resources in treating young people’s mental-health problems is a window of opportunity to prevent future costly physical diseases in older adults.

Professor Terrie Moffitt, senior author

This research was funded by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), the U.S. National Institute on Aging, and the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Development,

Additional support came from the Jacobs Foundation, the Lundbeck Foundation and the New Zealand Health Research Council. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study is supported by the New Zealand Health Research Council and New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment.

Hear Professor Terrie Moffitt and Professor Avshalom Caspi talking about their work in the BOLD Podcast, 10 years after receiving the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize that recognizes exceptional achievements in the field of child and youth development.

Association of History of Psychopathology With Accelerated Aging at Midlife,’ Jasmin Wertz, Avshalom Caspi, Antony Ambler, Jonathan Broadbent, Robert J. Hancox, HonaLee Harrington, Renate M. Houts, Joan H. Leung, Richie Poulton, Suzanne C. Purdy, Sandhya Ramrakha, Line Jee Hartmann Rasmussen, Leah S. Richmond-Rakerd, Peter R. Thorne, Graham A. Wilson, Terrie E. Moffitt. JAMA-Psychiatry, Feb. 17, 2021. DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.4626

Longitudinal Associations of Mental Disorders With Physical Diseases and Mortality Among 2.3 Million New Zealand Citizens,’ Leah S. Richmond-Rakerd, Stephanie D’Souza, Barry J. Milne, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt. JAMA Network Open, Jan. 13, 2021. DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.33448


For further information please contact Louise Pratt, Head of Communications, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London:

In this story

Terrie E. Moffitt

Chair in Social Behaviour & Development